Blog Editor’s Note – There are lots of reasons to worry about GPS vulnerability and our over-reliance on it.
Disruptions can lead to accidents (like the near crash of a passenger plane in 2019), a halt to farming operations and digital broadcasts, and severe impacts to telecommunications. Just to name a few.
Perhaps our biggest concern should be more existential. A major solar event or other mishap could halt GPS services for days, or even permanently. What then?
It could make the COVID-19 pandemic look like a mere warmup act.
Five years ago, the Iranian navy seized and temporarily held the crew of two U.S. Navy gunboats that had entered Iranian waters. Though the 10 sailors were eventually released, the photos of them kneeling on the deck of an Iranian vessel with their hands behind their heads was a national embarrassment at the least, and a potential trigger for a more serious confrontation at worst.
Then in 2019, President Donald Trump came close to calling for an airstrike against Iran in retaliation for shooting down a Navy RQ-4 Global Hawk drone over the Strait of Hormuz.
Though much about both incidents remains classified, at least one expert believes that they occurred because Iran was able to interfere with the Navy crafts’ GPS, causing them to move off their planned course and into hostile territory.
The incidents point to the vulnerability of global navigation satellite systems, and those operated by the U.S. in particular, said Dana Goward, president of the Alexandria, Virginia-based Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting resiliency in such systems.
The earlier incident was supposed to be “an easy trip down the coast of Saudi Arabia, from one port to another,” said Goward, a retired Coast Guard captain who served as director of the service’s Marine Transportation System.
“Somehow they ended up way to the left, where the Iranian navy just happened to be waiting for them,” he said.
Likewise, the Global Hawk was flying near the Iranian coast but still in international airspace.
“All of a sudden it’s taking a right-hand turn toward Iran, and getting shot down while it was in their territorial airspace,” Goward explained.