Image: (Screenshot: DOT) Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg made a surprise appearance at the DOT roundtable on complementary PNT.
Blog Editor’s Note: The author is President of the RNT Foundation.
“If this is a problem, the government should act like it.”
Citing more than 10 years of government studies, warnings and promises, representatives from a wide variety of industries criticized the government recently for doing little to address an important national security problem.
At issue was the need for national backup capabilities for GPS and the essential positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) signals it provides.
GPS signals are weak and easy to block or imitate. At the same time the signals are used by most technologies including networks, telecommunications, electrical grids, broadcast, mobile radios, transportation, and other critical infrastructures.
After Russia threatened to destroy all GPS satellites in 2021 in its run-up to invading Ukraine, a member of the White House National Security Council told a public meeting “GPS is still a single point of failure” for the nation.
The government was criticized for inaction at a “Complementary PNT Roundtable” hosted by the Department of Transportation (DOT) in early August. The department is the federal lead for civil GPS and PNT issues.
Eight attendees interviewed after the event reported a surprising unanimity of comments and concerns expressed by industry reps at the meeting.
Enough with the studies
A repeated theme was that the government has done enough studies to understand the problem and available technologies.
“They have been studying this for over twenty years,” one attendee observed. “The Volpe [Transportation Systems Center] report came out in 2001. And there have been lots of studies since then. All have just been refinements of those original findings.”
In 2021 DOT reported to Congress on a GPS backup demonstration project that included products and services from 11 different companies. It found that needed technologies were mature and could be had as commercial services.
Industry Will Not Solve the Problem on its Own
Another consistent theme was disdain for the idea that industry and the free market will solve the problem without government leadership and active support.
“GPS is free,” said one attendee from a company that provides PNT services. “We can and do sell to meet niche demands, but it is laughable to suggest we can ever sell enough subscriptions to be enough of a backup for GPS.”
A major telecommunications company rep echoed the sentiment. Wireless telecom is especially reliant on PNT. “We use GPS and would use Loran and low Earth orbit satellites if they were available, but we are not going to build it on our own. There is just no business case.”
“We have a big list of things we could do that would increase our resilience and/or cut costs,” said another telecom provider. “There is no big driver for most, though. No competitive pressure, no government mandates.”
Government must walk the walk
“The government has been telling us for over a decade that this is a problem,” said one attendee. “If that’s true, why aren’t they acting like it? Transportation is critical infrastructure and needs a GPS backup, for example. So why hasn’t DOT done something?” Of all the criticisms expressed, this was predominant, according to interviewees.
A 2021 Executive Order on responsible use of PNT services encouraged critical infrastructure providers to not rely on GPS.
The government needing to be a lead customer was mentioned a number of times at the event. This would help raise awareness, set an example, and signal to users the issue is important enough to act on.
Government action was also seen by users as key to creating confidence that a technology or service will be around for the long haul. This point seemed to resonate with many of the government representatives as well.
“I am not going to go to the time and expense of adopting something unless I know it is going to be around for 20 years or more. The only way I can be assured of that is if one of the biggest users is the government.”
Adversaries not idle
Of particular concern to some was that America’s adversaries have better, more resilient PNT, and are constantly working against us.
They are building PNT “…systems of systems. Space-based, ground-based, and everything in between-based. They are doing it. We need to get out in front and lead,” said one. China has been particularly active building multiple integrated PNT systems.
“Our adversaries are not stupid” and are going to try to stay in the lead. “They will try to interfere with any frequency, system, or combination of systems selected. We must test and build something that is survivable and resilient.”
“If China, Russia, and Iran had the ability to protect themselves from nuclear attack,” said one attendee, “we would be frantically trying to get the same capability. Yet those countries have backup and complementary systems for PNT, and the United States does not. And we’re not doing anything,” said a participant reflecting upon the event.
Several attendees said there were signs the event might not have been “just another government meeting.”
As part of his opening remarks, the event host, DOT Deputy Assistant Secretary Dr. Robert Hampshire, mentioned the bipartisan infrastructure law and affirmed that PNT is infrastructure. This led some to believe funding from the infrastructure legislation could be immediately available if the government decided to act.
Others were cheered by DOT Secretary Buttigieg’s cameo appearance and comments at the event. One remarked it was the first time they had heard a DOT Secretary say “PNT” in over 20 years.
Despite the consistent messaging and potentially hopeful signs, some attendees questioned whether anything would change because of the two-and-a-half-hour event.
“There were about 120 people from industry and a wide variety of government agencies, but what was the point?” asked one. “We all told the government the same things we’ve told them before, often in writing.”
Another was concerned that the event didn’t discuss the most important questions.
“We were talking about individual systems and critical infrastructures,” this person said. “This is a strategic national security issue. We need to get the bullseye off GPS and ensure the United States can’t be blackmailed by having GPS held hostage.”
“And what if there is a major coronal mass ejection? China will come out much better than us because they have survivable PNT. The United States will become a second-rate power to China in an instant. We keep talking about the trees and ignoring the forest!”
One attendee whose company has a very active government relations program reported they hoped the event would help sway those in government still opposed to action.
“It is pretty clear to us that almost everyone in the departments who understand the issues is in favor of doing something as soon as possible. The same with Congress. But even though the National Security Council is worried about this, there are some folks in the Office of Management and Budget who have opposed action for over a decade.”
While some came away buoyed by what they saw as an action-oriented tone to the event, others doubted much would change. “It remains to be seen whether criticism from industry and threats from China and Russia are enough to get the government to finally do something.”
Dana A. Goward is President of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation and serves on the President’s National Space-based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing Advisory Board.