Image: DVIDS, Staff Sgt. Jonathan Shaw
What’s New: The National Guard’s NITRO project is establishing a national resilient timing network for the Guard and state first responders. But it is stuck in a bureaucratic and budgetary no-man’s land.
Why It’s Important: NITRO will enable the National Guard and other first responders to use land mobile radios and other applications that need timing in GPS – denied environments.
What To Know: The author of the article is President of the RNT Foundation.
Mr. Goward: Thanks for speaking with us, General. Could you start by telling us what NITRO is and why it’s important?
Maj. Gen. Neely: Of course. NITRO is a project to ensure that the National Guard and our state’s first-responder partners can maintain communications and other critical functions even if we lose GPS timing signals.
NITRO is an acronym for Nationwide Integration of Timing Resiliency for Operations. ]You know how we in the military love our acronyms.
Telecoms and most of the rest of America’s critical infrastructure are dependent on timing from GPS. However, GPS signals are weak, highly vulnerable and under threat.
In addition to bad actors who can and do jam and spoof signals, accidental interference happens all the time. Operations at the Dallas and Denver airports were each interrupted by accident for more than a day last year, for example. A couple of years ago, a passenger airliner almost hit a mountain because of interference with GPS.
Q: It sounds like this is a safety of life issue.
A: It is. Right now, if we lost GPS signals and had to respond to a domestic attack, natural disaster, or other contingency, I am confident there would be additional unnecessary casualties. We are building NITRO so that we can save those lives and keep America safe.
Q: So how does NITRO work?
A: In addition to GPS, it gets multiple sources of space-based and terrestrial time from government and commercial providers. NITRO can use any trusted source. It is not provider- or vendor-specific.
Inputs are combined and compared, matched to the nation’s atomic clocks keeping Coordinated Universal Time, and users are sent the best accurate time multiple ways including over fiber, terrestrial broadcast, and resilient wireless networks.
Another great way in which I think it will be useful: NITRO gives us a common operating picture that can help detect and terminate GPS disruptions and anomalies around the country.
Q: Is the National Guard the only user?
A: Absolutely not! This is a state/federal partnership. The states’ Adjutant Generals are working with their Homeland Security Advisors to make it available to state, local, and tribal first responders. In some instances, also to critical infrastructure.
Even though we are in the early stages of implementation, NITRO is being used by seven states and 256 organizations and it is protecting more than 33 million people, including citizens here in Illinois.
Q: Is NITRO a tasking from the President or Congress? Who told you to do this?
A: NITRO helps execute long standing presidential policy and orders, as well as the recently released National Cybersecurity Implementation Plan. It also meets congressional mandates for backups and alternatives to GPS timing.
However, we created NITRO because we identified a serious threat to the National Guard’s mission execution. It closes 11 operational gaps for us, all without changes to end-user equipment.
Q: With what groups are the NITRO team working?
A: All the states are involved through their adjutant generals, homeland security advisors, and emergency managers. The NITRO board I chair is made up of the adjutant generals from six states.
We are also coordinating across the federal government, especially with the Departments of Homeland Security, Transportation, Commerce, and Energy.
As part of this we are partnering with the Department of Transportation to establish a NITRO engineering and operational site at Joint Base Cape Cod. This will allow engineers from different organizations to see more easily what we are doing and contribute their expertise.
Q: NITRO is going to provide timing signals in places and at times when GPS is not available. Won’t the National Guard also need navigation information?
A: Positioning and navigation are very important, but not quite as critical as timing. So, we are addressing that problem first. And since wireless location and navigation are often based on timing signals, NITRO will provide a good foundation for services and systems that can augment GPS-based navigation.
Q: So, how is the project going?
A: From a technical and operational standpoint, it’s going great. We have very high satisfaction ratings from NITRO users, and states are eager to be connected as soon as possible.
The technologies used are all mature, reasonably low cost, and most components are commercially available. So, engineering-wise it is low risk.
And our team is doing a great job helping folks move from full dependency on GPS to resilient positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) operations.
Q: Do you have any concerns going forward to full deployment?
A: The only thing I worry about is continued funding. Over the next five years we need something less than the cost of one GPS satellite. You would think that would be easy to find for an important effort like this, but it is a state/federal partnership, not a Department of Defense project. So, it falls into a kind of bureaucratic and budgetary no man’s land.
Q: What’s the solution for funding?
A: That’s not our call. The folks at the White House are exploring several alternatives, and I know several members of Congress are also concerned. We see a possibility of this fitting nicely with the recent infrastructure funding bill.
Q: It sounds like NITRO is something America really needs. Let’s hope they find a solution to the funding challenge, and quickly, to keep you on track. Thank you very much for your time!
A: My pleasure!