Image: 2008 PNT Architecture published by US government but never implemented

Blog Editor’s Note: A thoughtful piece by our friend and colleague, Doug Taggart, that explores the recurring question “Why, despite near-existential threats, hasn’t the US diversified its PNT architecture?”

Some quick high-level background for newer readers and those not familiar with the policy and political issues:

  • PNT is used by virtually every technology, and is essential to most
  • GPS is overwhelmingly the major source of PNT in the US, so if it goes away, we are in deep, deep trouble.
  • There are huge natural, accidental, and malicious threats to GPS satellites and signals
  • The US government has documented all of this, and has promised several times to diversify PNT sources, but has failed to do so
  • China, Russia, and Iran, among others, HAVE diversified their PNT. They can survive problems with space-based PNT much better than we can.

So, again the question – “Why hasn’t the US done anything?” despite having all the studies and “knowledge” needed?

Some explanations that have been offered in the past:

“Little Suzy hasn’t died yet.” – The idea that we have not had a major PNT failure and it is really hard for governments to take preventative measures. Much easier to respond after a disaster. Think hardened cockpit doors and airport security AFTER 9/11. Improved levees AFTER Hurricane Katrina.

“No one is in charge.” – PNT governance in the US government is a committee affair and the committee has little power.

“The tragedy of the commons.” – Everyone wants to take advantage of PNT, no one wants to own it and be responsible.

“Post-Cold War arrogance.” – We beat the Soviets and became the sole world super power. We’ve got nothing to worry about.

And there is Logan Scott’s metaphor mentioned in Doug’s article below:

“Cargo Cult bureaucrats” – Solutions to our problems will fall from the sky as they have before and we will prosper. This is a pretty insidious one. It is reinforced by experience with all the wonderful things our competitive, capitalist economy has delivered us without government leadership and support.

Like the internet, for example.

Wait – didn’t the internet come from the government ARPANET project? Well at least the government backed off and let market forces take over and grow it. And how happy are you with the way that turned out? Get a lot of spam and scam email do you? Like being hacked and held hostage? Happy it is so hard to tell if it’s your neighbors or the Chinese or Russians commenting on politics?

OK, enough of me ranting. 

Here is Doug’s recent column in the Fall 2022 ION Newsletter reprinted with permission. You can also read it there if you are an ION member.

If you are not an ION member – why?  It costs less than $100/year. Get off your lazy butt and join! If you are reading this blog, you also need to know about all the good stuff going on with ION.


Fall 2022

Defense Matters

A Time for Action

Countered by Two Kinds of Truth

 A precursory note to all readers: The material that follows includes an overabundance of cited references. For all practical purposes, these can be chalked up to employing some tongue-in-cheek satire and a sprinkling of sarcasm to woefully reflect on the ongoing handwringing surrounding the truth about the U.S. national PNT posture.

This quarterly Defense Matters submission was inspired by a recent commentary provided by Logan Scott in the August 2, 2022 edition of Inside GNSS entitled Time for Action: We Must Fail Before We Can Succeed.1 In my view, it is a well-written, thoughtful piece that suggests that, in the United States, we have lost the inventive spirit of years gone by in which American ingenuity confronted challenges head-on.

Cargo Cults

I have to disclose that upon reading Logan’s opening para­ graph where he employs the term Cargo Cults in the statement, “The Cargo Cults of Washington D.C., while well intentioned, are slowing progress.. .like the Cargo Cults of the South Seas waiting for those airplanes to land,” forced me to investigate the meaning and the use of the term.1

I found that Logan’s reference to the South Seas is consistent with the historical derivation of the term in a subregion of Mela­nesia where there was a belief in the “imminence of a new age of blessing to be initiated by the arrival of a special ‘cargo’ of goods from supernatural sources.”2

I asked myself: Was Logan suggesting that those here in the Wash­ington D.C area think that some magical force is going to make the well-documented and increasingly dangerous 20+ year reliance on GPS simply vanish or become a non-issue because GPS will be blessed or protected because it is special? if one were to believe that, then how could it be that those “well intentioned are slowing prog­ress?’ Not completely convinced that I had it correct, I decided to look further and the appropriateness of that potential addition will become apparent.

A more recent application of the term is found in the world of computer programming where, “cargo cult programming” de­scribes the ritual inclusion of code which may serve no purpose in the program, but is believed to be a workaround for some software bug, or to be otherwise required for reasons unknown to the programmer.”3

The Role of Ritual

Armed with this more recent deriva­tion, maybe Logan’s application was meant to infer that delays are being experienced because of an ongoing ritual conducted by those here in Washington, D.C. Setting off to investigate further, I found that the term ritual can fall into any of three main types.

The first is: ”A mythological reenact­ment or a long-standing religious ritual that reenacts a sacred story.” The second is: ”A rite of passage which is a culturally significant marker of a new stage of life.” The third is: ”A family ritual which are often less religious- and community-ori­ented and more relaxed. Such rituals are unique, and usually have deep emotional significance throughout the generations.”4

Is it possible that the slowing prog- ress by the those well-intentioned here in Washington, D.C., has been caused by the repetition of a sacred story that downplays the pitfalls of overreliance on a single source of PNT? Is this storytell­ing a rite of passage that carries a deep emotional significance that can only be fully understood when each new admin­istration fully absorbs the 1,200+ slides in the GPS slide deck referenced by Logan’s commentary? Have we reached the point where everything regarding the need for a diverse national PNT architecture has been said, but not everyone has said it? Is this too far-fetched to be the truth? I’ll get back to that question in a minute.

And for those that are still reading­ don’t lose sight of the fact that I have only taken a stab at dissecting the first sentence of the first paragraph in Logan’s article.

Leadership’s Call to Action

But taking a less sarcastic tone and seeking to progress, I believe that Logan’s true purpose is found in his reference to the historical leadership offered when President Kennedy set the national vi­ sion of putting a man on the moon in a speech he gave at Rice University on September 12, 1962 (Author’s note: 60 years ago to the day while drafting this issue of Defense Matters).

In this speech Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills; [and] because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”5

This historic call to action of sending a man to the Moon and bringing him safely back was well beyond the challenge of establishing a more diverse national PNT architecture, but there is a great deal of relevance when you consider that setting a goal is one thing, but seeing it through requires leadership. Here is where the Washington Cargo Cults fall short.

A Failure of Recent Legislation

An opportunity to bring resources to the task of pursuing a diverse national PNT architecture to complement GPS services and reduce the risk of overreli­ance on them recently missed when Con­gress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and President Biden signed it into law shortly thereafter6.

The White House press release states, “The legislation will help ease inflationary pressures and strengthen supply chains by making long overdue improvements for our nation’s ports, airports, rail, and roads.” The statement goes on to claim that the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal is a “once-in-a-generation investment in our nation’s infrastructure.”7 Unfortunately, the idea of a national PNT infrastructure is not found in the bill, even though no less than eight of the 10 showcased areas in the press release directly depend on use of resilient PNT services for their operation. Such services take part in a vast list including high-speed internet; roads and bridges; public transit; upgraded airports and ports; passenger rails; electric vehicles; power grid infrastructure; and, moreover, resilient infrastructure with no more lead pipes and environmental remediation remaining outside of the direct PNT realm of dependency.

The Truth of the Matter

Logan’s commentary reveals elements of a foundational truth-endless streams of studies on the vulnerabilities associ­ ated with GPS overreliance. He wisely suggests to take lessons from the Chinese initiative to field BeiDou and, at the same time, invest in a diverse national PNT architecture which includes their own two Loran-C systems·8 Take lessons from SpaceX-set lofty goals and keep working to meet the objectives; learn from your mistakes and keep forging ahead. We need leaders to, not only set these goals, but to take the lead to get it done.

There are clearly those in the Cargo Cults here in Washington with the capacity to raise the issue to a level in which something can be done. There is clearly an opportunity for someone in government to step up to the challenge of displaying greater leadership and demonstrating a fearless willingness to set a vision and to take bold steps to do something beyond continuing to simply admire the problem.

To tee up the topic of truth, one might recognize that there are two kinds of truth in this world. The truth that is the unalterable bedrock of fact: Reliance for continuous operation of our critical infrastructures on a space-based system as a single source of PNT information is neither prudent nor responsible. The other truth is the more malleable form fa­ vored by politicians in making unfulfilled promises which are bolstered by willing charlatans pretending to move the effort forward but lacking the commitment to do so. Unfortunately, the latter practice seems to have found root in Washington and is embodied in the new Cargo Cults noted by Logan.

Returning to Logan’s article’s title and focus-Time for Action: We Must Fail Be­ fore We Can Succeed-let us all hope that a future commentary doesn’t carry the mes­ sage, The Time for Action has Passed: We Will Suffer Because We Did Nothing.

  4.­ definition-types-challenges.html
  8.­ loads/2018/04/China-eLoran.pdf