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The author is President of the RNT Foundation.

Spring 2024


The Confusing Tale of NITRO

Dana A. Goward

An Uncomplicated Beginning

In many ways this should have been a fairly simple story.

In 2021 the National Guard recognized that it would have a difficult time operating in areas where GPS was either denied or, worse, being manipulated. The threat was real. They had seen it overseas, after all, and disruptions at home had also been observed.  The Guard’s Counterdrug Task Force had already had a mission fail, for example, when positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) data from multiple sources did not match.

Adding to the imperative was a 2020 Presidential Executive Order to use additional and diversified PNT sources to avoid GPS being a single point of failure.

Of particular concern was timing. Not only is timing the basis for location determination, navigation applications, and common operating pictures, but it is also needed by land mobile radios and for the operation of almost every IT system.

Analyses showed that difficulties operating without GPS time and timing, and the proliferation of disparate alternatives to GPS, created 11 operational gaps for the Guard. So, like good soldiers, they set out to close those gaps and ensure their ability to serve the nation.

The solution was the Nationwide Integration of Timing Resilience for Operations (NITRO) project.

Executed under the Department of Defense’s (DOD) Rapid Prototype and Fielding authority, NITRO is a federal-state partnership. The federal part is led by the National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C. developing architecture and standards, ensuring coordination and connectivity, accessing authoritative sources of time, and ensuring the system is malware-free.

States are responsible for connecting to the system, distributing time to their first responders, and at their discretion to localities, critical infrastructure, and other applications or users governors think important.

Designed to be executed in several phases, NITRO receives multiple time signals from diverse sources and transmits an authenticated time message free from malware. When complete, the project is intended to:

  • Serve the land mass of all 54 U.S. states, territories, and District of Columbia,
  • Provide immediate notification and geolocation of GPS anomalies anywhere in its service area,
  • Deliver time via broadcast, wireless, and fiber at <20ns relative to NIST UTC, and
  • Enable GPS-independent location and navigation applications.

As of this writing NITRO has been deployed to 9 states/territories, serves 318+ organizations and 37 million Americans.

The National Institutes of Standards and Technology describes disruption of PNT information as a cyber problem. The Department of Defense describes sees GPS disruptions through the varied lenses of navigation warfare, electromagnetic interference, and cyberspace/cybersecurity.

Over-dependence on GPS in the United States is so serious a member of the National Security Council has called GPS “a single point of failure” for the nation.

Chronic GPS disruptions across the globe, along with revelations about China’s cyber infiltration of infrastructure and applications within the U.S. should have alarm bells ringing at their loudest. Especially with China, America’s “pacing threat” according to DOD, in the final stages of construction of its High-Precision, Ground-based Timing System to ensure it is not over-dependent on signals from space.

A fully implemented, perhaps an even more expanded, NITRO would seem to be the answer to a wealth of American vulnerabilities and needs.

Yet, despite broad recognition of our national vulnerability and need, there is a good chance the project will be terminated this year and the system dismantled.

Whose Job is It?

How could this possibly be? – The reasons are likely many and varied having little to do with the kind of straight forward analysis and practicality most Institute of Navigation members are accustomed to in their daily work.

According to Congressional staff familiar with the issue, the proximate cause of NITRO’s potential demise seems to be that authorities at the Department of Defense have decided  NITRO is a civil defense, not a national defense, project and therefore not appropriate for the DOD budget. This despite NITRO protecting American industrial complex, supply chains, and critical infrastructure DOD depends upon for its daily operations.

The same congressional staff observed that civil defense is a core mission for the National Guard and NITRO was funded in the DOD budget for 2 years without any problem. They question what has changed. Also, that while funding for the National Guard flows through DOD, it is a relatively independent, mostly state-based entity operating under Title 32 of the U.S. Code. The remainder of DOD operates under Title 10. This has caused some in Congress to question whether the process should be changed so that Guard budgets are considered separately.

Regardless, if the project addresses a national need, especially one recognized by the National Security Council (NSC), identifying how it should be funded and led could be resolved fairly simply at the White House level. Either another, more appropriate, organization or entity could be directed to fund and lead the project. Or it could remain with the National Guard and DOD could be directed to include funding in their budget submissions.

Yet, in my experience, the NSC is frequently more of a forum for various federal departments and agencies to come together and reach a consensus, rather than a decision-making body. And even when consensus is achieved and decisions are made, they can be overridden or changed before actual progress emerges. In PNT-world this happened in 2009 and again in 2015 when a consensus decision to build a terrestrial backup for GPS endorsed by the deputy secretaries of Defense and Transportation was negated by civil servants in the Executive Office of the President.

What this seems to have meant for NITRO is that either the departments were not able to reach a consensus, or a decision to proceed was again overruled by someone at the White House level. Considering the clear and present cyber and operational threats to the U.S., how either of these situations could be is anyone’s guess.

Perhaps it is that, since the U.S. has not had a major GPS outage or cyber-related incident, there is little motivation to fix something that, to the uninformed, does not appear to be broken.

For those who do recognize the threats and vulnerabilities, it could be there are just too many other seemingly more urgent demands upon their time and attention.

Alternatively, some retired senior leaders at the PNT Advisory Board have opined that for PNT “no one is in charge.” The deputy secretaries of Defense and Transportation are responsible for making joint recommendations to the Executive Office of the President, but they have not met on PNT issues in almost ten years. And when they have made recommendations, many have gone unaddressed, and some have been overridden. Who, exactly, the recommendations have gone to and how and why they have been overridden is not at all clear.

Engineering and building PNT systems to protect the nation is difficult. Yet it involves linear, solvable problems that, with hard work and funding, can be overcome.

Policy and politics, though, involve peoples’ ingrained beliefs, prejudices, and emotions. These are complex, non-linear problems that are more difficult to address. They are the biggest challenges to advancing complementary and backup PNT systems to protect the nation. They continue to place America at risk.


Mr. Dana A. Goward is President of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation and a member of the President’s National Space-based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing Advisory Board. In 2021 he received ION’s Norman Hayes Award for inspirational leadership.