Why Congress is Interested in GPS Vulnerability & eLoran

May 21, 2017

Congressman John Garamendi (D-CA) is a leading proponent of a complementary and backup system for GPS

On Friday a bill was introduced into the House of Representatives that contained language requiring the Secretary of Transportation to work through the Coast Guard to establish an eLoran system. This follows recent discussion of the topic in two Senate hearings, a House hearing that was devoted almost exclusively to GPS vulnerability and solutions, and a bill that passed the House last year, but was not considered by the Senate.

Over the weekend we caught up with RNTF President Dana Goward to talk about this flurry of congressional activity.

Q. Why do you suppose there is this sudden Congressional interest in GPS vulnerability and eLoran?

A. Members of Congress have been interested in this topic for a long time. Certainly since 2004 when President Bush declared GPS essential to our national and economic security and directed a backup capability be acquired. If the interest is more obvious now, I am guessing it’s because the threats to GPS satellites and signals are increasing. The Director of National Intelligence reported this month that Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea are focusing on improving their already impressive ability to jam GPS. DHS reported in January that threats to harm the US via GPS disruption were increasing. A private security firm echoed those findings. So while I am not privy to government intelligence reports anymore, what I see in open source makes me concerned.  I’m sure that members of Congress who get the intelligence briefings are even more concerned.

Q. Hasn’t the government decided before to build an eLoran system as an augmentation to GPS?

A. Both the Bush and Obama administrations announced that they would build eLoran.

Q. When was that?

A. The first time was in 2008. After more than three years of study and analysis, the Department of Homeland Security issued a press release saying that the old Loran-C system was going to be moved from Coast Guard to NPPD, where their Infrastructure Protection group lives.  Also that the upgrade to the more accurate, less expensive, eLoran standard would be completed.

Q. Seems pretty straight forward. What happened?

A.  DHS included the transfer of the system from Coast Guard to Infrastructure Protection in their budget proposal for 2009. It ended up that fiscal 2009 was a continuing resolution year and Congress didn’t want to make an exception for this one tiny program. We had informal feedback that members were pleased to see action to keep Loran and protect GPS, and we were encouraged to include the same language in the next year’s budget. So that’s the way the 2010 DHS budget was submitted to the White House. When that budget draft came back to DHS for final review late one Thursday night, with a reply deadline of noon Friday, the transfer provision was eliminated and the existing $34.5M/yr budget was zeroed out.

Q. Didn’t anyone protest?

A. Quite a few people did. We said that the eLoran effort was the result of an across-government, multiyear effort and agreement to protect national and homeland security. That the $34.5M/yr was helping to protect the nation’s $1B/yr investment in GPS. That shutting down Loran would abrogate international agreements and promises the US had recently made. And that it would make the nation much more vulnerable to GPS disruption than Russia and China who were keeping their Loran systems.

Q. What was the response?

A. The OMB person who I spoke with told me they wanted to show that the new president was saving money by doing away with old, redundant systems in his first budget. This person also said “Don’t worry. We at OMB know this is an important national security issue. We will come back and fix it next fiscal year.”

Q. And next fiscal year never came.

A. I served in government for another four years. During that time OMB shut down every effort to even discuss the topic.  It’s why when I retired from government service Marty Faga and I started the non-profit RNT Foundation – to get the discussion about protecting GPS, including with a complementary and backup system, going again.

Q. Why didn’t Congress object to the administration’s change of plans in the 2010 budget?

A. Some members did, and quite vigorously. After a lot of wrangling with the administration on this, Congress included a provision in the approved budget prohibiting termination of Loran services until the Homeland Security Secretary and Coast Guard Commandant certified Loran was not needed as a national backup for GPS navigation.

Q. Did they make that certification?

A. They did, sort of. The report to Congress said that, in the absence of GPS, delivery drivers could use roadmaps, aircraft could use terrestrial VORs and DMEs and ships could use radar, buoys and light houses. However, the very end of the report said that, while Loran wasn’t needed for a navigation backup to GPS, the department was very concerned about the need for a timing backup and more study was needed. But since the law only required them to certify Loran wasn’t needed for a navigation backup before it was shutdown,  services were taken off air and disposal of the infrastructure was begun.

Q. The whole thing seems kind of deceptive.

A. The administration followed the letter of the law, though I know that some members of Congress think the wool was deliberately pulled over their eyes.

Q. You said the government announced twice that it would build eLoran.

A.  Yes. The second time was in 2015, after about another year of analysis and study by an inter-department “Tiger Team.” As a result of that effort the Deputy Secretaries of Defense and Transportation wrote to Chairman Bill Schuster of the House Transport and Infrastructure Committee and four other concerned members. The letter said the government would partner with the private sector and establish an eLoran timing system to protect critical infrastructure. Also that, while the timing system was going up, the requirements for a larger positioning, navigation, and timing system would be finalized.

Q. What happened then?

A. That is a great question. One, I am guessing, some members of Congress are also asking. The administration says it is still “studying the issue” and DHS has continued to demonstrate eLoran as a precise, difficult to disrupt timing signal.  But nothing has really been done to make good on the deputy secretaries’ commitment.

Q. After two years that could explain why Congress has gotten into the act.

A. I agree. The executive branch has a long history of saying this is an important and growing problem that they will act on, and then not doing anything. Last year the House passed legislation requiring DHS and the Coast Guard to take action. Unfortunately, it was late in the year, there seems to have been a national election of some sort going on, and the Senate was not able to consider the bill.  Since the inauguration, though, the issue has come up in a couple of Senate hearings, and the House held a joint hearing that ended up being dominated by this issue.

Q. Why do you think that the recently introduced bill tasks the Secretary of Transportation with this, working through the Coast Guard.

A. Transportation is the federal lead for civil positioning, navigation, and timing. Also, Coast Guard has custody of most of the Loran-C infrastructure upon which eLoran will be built, and some residual technical expertise having operated Loran systems for over 50 years. Transportation was also placed in charge by the 2004 Presidential Directive, NSPD-39, which is still valid, by the way.

Q. Do you think this bill will pass the Senate and become law?

A. I am sure Senators are as concerned as members in the House about protecting GPS and America. Everyone we have spoken with on Capitol Hill, once they understand the vulnerabilities and threats, has supported getting to a solution as quickly as possible. The RNT Foundation is a scientific and educational charity, so it is part of our mission to help ensure everyone who needs to understands the issues.

Editor’s Note: From 2004 to 2013 Mr. Goward served in several senior executive positions with the US Coast Guard. His responsibilities included working with other departments to fulfill the mandates of NSPD-39 and serving as the maritime navigation authority for the United States.