Will Maritime Save the Day for GPS?

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By Dana Goward 2017-08-21 00:51:37

Maritime has historically played an outsize role in world affairs. 

Sailors, few in number compared to the population as a whole, have changed the world immeasurably with their skills, boats and ships. 

For thousands of years, maritime was the primary way far-flung peoples exchanged goods, culture and DNA. Every place it touched became more diverse and cosmopolitan.

In the twentieth century, maritime forces saved the world by whisking away 300,000 British troops from Dunkirk and kept Britain alive for four years before delivering a larger force to Normandy. And could anything have been done to regain the vast Pacific without naval power and vast merchant fleets? 

For the last 50 years, maritime has been a primary, though invisible to most, backbone of the efficiencies in materials, manufacturing and trade that have fueled global prosperity. 

In much the same way since the 1990’s, GPS has become a primary, though almost invisible, backbone of technology. It’s free, highly accurate timing signal has been become an indispensable part of every network. It has become, in the words of officials at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “…a single point of failure for critical infrastructure.” And with its very low power, unencoded civil signal, it is a weak single point of failure.

Maritime operations are vulnerable to disruption of GPS signals. Ships steer less efficient courses, digital radios are impacted, port cranes can get lost… even ship’s gyro compasses can show faults. 

But maritime may be less vulnerable than other modes of transportation and other critical infrastructure. Imagine the reduction in efficiency of United Parcel Service drivers having to go back to paper maps versus a cargo vessel having to take visual bearings or pick up a pilot an hour or two sooner. 

It is interesting, then, that it may be concerns about maritime that push forward U.S. plans to address GPS vulnerability to the benefit of everyone. 

As with many things in public life, the reasons for this have to do more with tradition and coincidence than analyses and deliberate planning.

Radio beacons were first pioneered and deployed for maritime use in the early 1900s. At the outbreak of World War I, beacons were deployed along the east coast of the U.S. as a way to help counter the U-boat threat. As aids to navigation, they were the responsibility of the U.S. Lighthouse Service and were often collocated with lighthouses or placed aboard lightships. This gave the Lighthouse Service’s successor agency, the U.S. Coast Guard, experience and expertise with radio navigation. 

The Coast Guard was thus very involved in development of the secret Loran navigation system before and during World War II. Eventually, all responsibility for U.S. Loran operations world-wide fell to the Coast Guard. Even in the 1980s and 90s when additional Loran-C capability in the U.S. was added specifically for aviation interests, while funding flowed through the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), responsibility for the entire system remained with the Coast Guard. 

Not only did the Coast Guard continue developing significant radio navigation expertise, it dealt with a substantial and diverse user group. This included mariners of all kinds, commercial and private aircraft pilots, and Defense Department range commanders who used the system to track the flights of their missile tests. It also included some interested just in timing. Telecommunications giant Sprint-Nextel and a national banking system were among that number. 

This combination of expertise and working with diverse users caused Congress to look to the Coast Guard as its “go to agency” for general navigation expertise. And so, after 10 years of administrations resolving to address GPS vulnerability with a backup system, it was the House Coast Guard and Marine Transportation subcommittee that held the first hearing on the topic in 2014. The legislative focus on maritime for a solution has continued with the House recently passing and sending to the Senate a bill that would require the Department of Transportation to work with the Coast Guard to build an eLoran system to complement and backup GPS. Such a system would, of course, benefit of all Americans, not just those with a connection to the sea.

By coincidence, while the House was still considering this bill, the Petya computer virus temporarily crippled maritime giant Maersk, and an apparent large scale GPS spoofing attack against 20 or more vessels in the Black Sea became public. The spoofing attack has been of particular concern in media reports with some speculating that, like the Petya virus, it is a Russian cyber weapon. 

While other sectors may be more vulnerable, the media and public love concrete examples, and the Black Sea incident captured imaginations. When coupled with the North Korean jamming last year that forced South Korean fishing vessels to return to port, a long-term trend of maritime problems has been established in the minds of many.  

But this is not necessarily a bad thing. It has been our experience that the primary reason a GPS backup has not been deployed, despite all promises to the contrary, is a lack of focus within the executive branch of government. There are too many stakeholders, too many possible responsible officials to force one to stand up, be accountable, and act. Recent congressional action and media attention have solved that problem by focusing on the maritime problem and driving a solution powered by the Department of Transportation and executed through the Coast Guard.

The maritime community will benefit greatly from having the eLoran system the government has promised. The IMO’s eNavigation goals are not achievable without the kind of resilient electronic navigation it will provide. So, what will it matter if the rest of the nation also benefits? A stronger nation makes us all safer, more secure, and more prosperous. A rising tide… 

With maritime concerns driving an eLoran complement and backup for GPS, once again, community concerns and solutions will punch well above their weight and disproportionally benefit the world at large.

Captain Dana A. Goward, USCG (ret), is the President of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.