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What’s New: A meditation on the importance of PNT to a nation’s ability to control its own destiny.

Why It’s Important: Nation’s usually want to be able to sustain themselves at some level without relying on another country.

  • Would a country really be independent if it had to depend on another to give it food or water?
  • Right now most countries are operating with PNT provided free by one or more of the “great powers.”
  • Nation’s should also be able to sustain themselves without access to space.
    • Space is a dangerous environment (debris, the sun, bad actors)

What Else to Know: The author of the article is RNTF President Dana A. Goward


PNT, Sovereignty, & BeiDou Genesis

The case of BeiDou is illustrative why countries need their own PNT systems to safeguard their sovereignty

If your country isn’t able to ensure its source of positioning, navigation, and timing, or PNT, is it really independent? Is it really sovereign?

In 1996, outraged at Taiwanese moves for international recognition of independence, China mobilized 150,000 troops to Fujian Province on the shores of the Taiwan Strait.

It conducted live fire exercises, a mock amphibious landing, and aggressive naval manoeuvres. The United States immediately became involved and sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to the area in what became known as the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis.

As part of its show of power, China fired three missiles into the Strait. The first landed as intended about 18 kilometers from Taiwan’s Keelung military base. The other two missiles were lost.

China said this was because the United States had altered or denied the GPS signals which the missiles were using for guidance.

For the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) this became known as “The Unforgettable Humiliation.”

The Long Game

The Unforgettable Humiliation birthed a 24-year effort that resulted in BeiDou, a satellite navigation system superior in many ways to all others. Along the way it created a Chinese space industry worth tens of billions of dollars a year building everything from personal user equipment to advanced launch and delivery systems.

It begat unmanned trips to the far side of the moon, the PLA Strategic Support Force and Rocket Force, and a whole inventory of new cruise, ballistic, and hypersonic missiles.

And their efforts were not just in space. Having once been stung by the fragility of space systems, China also reinforced and built terrestrial GPS-like systems to provide essential PNT services. Precisely measured fiber runs enable easy transmission of hyper-accurate time for future 5G networks and autonomy corridors.

A high power, low frequency Loran system that reaches across the country and 1,000 miles offshore was upgraded. In the words of one research paper, ‘we must have this in the event signals from space are no longer available.’

The creation of BeiDou and these other systems were China’s declaration of technological independence. No longer would the PLA or the rest of China be reliant on GPS, or on space, for these crucial services. The PNT needed to underpin virtually every technology, and every aspect of life in the First World. China had become a truly sovereign nation.

GPS Goes Global

In 1983, a navigation error caused Korea Air flight 007 to wander into Soviet airspace. In the wake of its shoot down President Reagan made the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) available for use by global aviation. What had been a miliary system, was officially dual use – both civil and military.

And for four decades it has been US government policy to encourage adoption and use of GPS, worldwide. That effort was incredibly successful. GPS signals now underpin virtually every technology.

The U.S. has called GPS “America’s gift to the world” and it has been a pillar of the nation’s soft and hard power enhancing its global influence.

Yet GPS as a source of power and influence was not lost on others. Russia’s GLONASS became operational in 1993.

Ten years later, in 2003, the European Union decided to build its own satnav, Galileo. Europe’s motivations were many and included the economic benefits of developing the entire technology stack needed to make it all work.

Underlying everything, though, was a desire for sovereignty. Being able to operate, to continue the functions of daily life, without the support of a foreign power.

Underlying Issues

The challenge for most nations, though, is that they don’t have anything like the resources needed to build and operate their own global navigation satellite system. They depend upon one or more foreign powers for the essential PNT services needed to operate their economy and defend themselves.

Valiant defenders in Ukraine are struggling with this every day. GPS jamming is wide-spread, and there have been press reports it is hampering the effectiveness of U.S.-provided weapons. Other press reports seem to indicate that Ukrainian forces had a solution to their drones attacking Russian bases being jammed.

They appear to have been able to reverse engineer Starlink communication signals and use them for navigation. Yet, once Elon Musk found out what they were doing, he cut off access to that feature.

More evidence that the question “If you don’t control your own PNT, are you really sovereign?” is more than just academic. It has real world implications in a nation’s on-going fight for survival.

So which nations can really control their own PNT? Which are truly independent and sovereign?

Of the 195 countries in the world, only three and the EU have their own global navigation satellite system (GNSS). But even if a nation has its own GNSS, does that really mean it controls its own PNT?

GNSS signals can be interfered with in any number of ways by a wide variety of malicious actors. Unintentional interference is also a huge problem. Just look at the incidents last year in the U.S. at the Dallas-Fort Worth and Denver airports as examples.

And then there is the sun. By some estimates the biggest threat to GNSS satellites and signals of them all.

Scientists tell us the sun will disrupt GNSS, it is just a question of when. Some estimate the chance of a Coronal Mass Ejection, or CME, in the next 30 years capable of at least denying GNSS signals for a week at between 56% and 99%. Of course, the CME could be a lot more damaging.

Satellites could be completely disabled or destroyed. And there is a recent study from the UK that says some forms of weak solar activity are more likely to disrupt GNSS signals than other kinds of strong activity. The bottom line is the sun is the most powerful force within light years, and there are many ways it can and will cause problems for GNSS.

So, what is a country to do if it doesn’t want to have its PNT and a huge portion of its ability to defend itself and keep its economy going subject to the whims of one or more foreign powers, bad actors, and the sun?

There has been growing concern about over-relying on GPS-based PNT in the United States. Not that it is provided by a foreign power, of course, but that it could be denied by a foreign power, hacker, an accident, or a huge solar event. All very real concerns that would severely impact America’s ability to defend itself and keep its economy going.

Towards a Resilient PNT Architecture 

Several studies over the years have shown the way forward for this. The most recent was by the U.S. Department of Transportation and examined “GPS Complementary and Backup Technologies.”

This effort confirmed a 2008 National PNT Architecture paper finding that a systems approach to PNT with multiple diverse sources is necessary to ensure users always have the critical PNT services they need.

The more recent paper said a combination of signals from space, terrestrial broadcast, and fiber, what some call “the resilience triad,” is needed. Three highly diverse networks working together would provide as much PNT resilience as can be practically achieved.

Of course, putting a sovereign PNT capability in space is beyond the desires and resources of most nations. Yet all have access to four GNSS constellations, and will likely be able to use a fifth when India globalizes its regional system.

Fortunately, the two other parts of the resilience triad, terrestrial broadcast and fiber networks, are within the financial reach of almost every nation.

And many modestly priced broadcast technologies can be made even less expensive by using existing infrastructure.

Television broadcasters have been demonstrating how new signal standards can be adapted to provide PNT information along with game shows and old movies. These existing transmitters could serve users within several hundred miles and offer frequency diversity.

eLoran PNT systems can be deployed using existing AM radio towers. While eLoran uses only one low frequency band, it has a range of 1,000 miles or better, and works quite well offshore and for aviation.

Some have envisioned using both TV and eLoran broadcasts as part of a resilient architecture, with eLoran providing timing and synchronization to TV transmitters, and full PNT offshore and in remote areas.

Fiber networks, while a bit more expensive, can also be sized according to need and budget. Most nations already have at least a minimal amount of fiber, and some experts opine that, as more and more applications become wireless, existing fiber will become more available and access less expensive.

Current fiber networks in many countries are likely already sufficient to link and synchronize terrestrial PNT broadcast sites and provide other support.

Integrating sovereign fiber and terrestrial broadcast with multiple non-sovereign GNSS will create an very resilient PNT architecture for any nation. An architecture that ensures the nation’s PNT independence and sovereignty from the great powers, including the sun.

But is it really worth the bother? And the expense, however modest it may be?

For most countries, national security and the very lives of their citizens depend upon fragile signals from space that can be easily disrupted. Reinforcing those signals and ensuring PNT must be an imperative.

In 1996 China’s People’s Liberation Army may have been humiliated, but they learned two important lessons. Don’t depend on others for critical national needs, and don’t depend solely on space.

Every nation should take the opportunity to benefit from their experience. Not doing so could result in much worse than an unforgettable humiliation.