Expert Advice: The Low Cost of Protecting America

January 1, 2014  - By 2 Comments
Dana A. Goward

Dana A. Goward

By Dana A. Goward

Highly precise and free for use by anyone with an inexpensive receiver, GPS and other GNSS are great. Their navigation and timing signals have been incorporated into nearly every aspect of modern life, from synchronizing power grids to financial systems, the Internet, telecommunications, and transportation. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security estimates that these signals are used by all 16 of U.S. critical national infrastructure sectors, and are essential to the functioning of 11.

Jamming Threat Growing. When these faint signals can’t be received, people start to feel the impact immediately. Usually outages have minimal impact because they are localized and short-lived. Often they occur because the user is temporarily in an area without a good view of the sky. More and more often, though, they are due to the presence of one of a growing number of people with jamming devices (many of which also block cell phone frequencies).

Inexpensive, easy to obtain, and illegal, jammers are spreading as people become more concerned about privacy and being tracked by their employer, spouse, the National Security Agency, and others. Although the government tries to collect information on jamming incidents, no widespread detection system has been established, and few verbal reports are received. For the calls that do come in, it is often impossible to determine which are because of user error and which are purposeful interference.

For those cases where jamming is discovered, locating and identifying the perpetrator is difficult and often impossible. As one example, in spite of near-daily disruption of GPS that caused the shutdown of a new landing system at Newark International Airport, it took the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Communications Commission more than two years of concerted effort to identify the single perpetrator.

If a navigation satellite outage became widespread and lasted more than a few hours because of a major solar flare, software problem, hacker or cyber-attack, most authorities agree that the impacts would be catastrophic. While much of the information is classified, we do know that transportation would immediately become much less efficient and more dangerous; even many traffic lights are coordinated using satellite timing. Telecommunications, financial, energy and other systems would soon begin to fail as their back-up timing systems lost synchronization with each other. Power grids would lose synchronizations and outages may occur as transmission points became overloaded.

More than speculation, these problems have been documented in academic papers, proven in government tests in the United States and the United Kingdom, and the early stages of such impacts have been observed in localized and short-term outages in the United States. Most dramatically, they have been demonstrated by North Korea’s intentional jamming of South Korea.

Spoofing. Of equal concern is the problem of spoofing. The world’s preeminent ethical spoofer of satellite navigation receivers, Todd Humphreys of the University of Texas, Austin, has demonstrated how easy it is to take control of unmanned aircraft and ships on autopilot by sending a slightly stronger navigation signal, making the receiver think it is somewhere other than where it is. Iran claims to have done something similar, capturing a U.S. military drone in 2010. Humphreys has also shown (on paper) how time-stamps on automated financial transactions could be altered through spoofing. This could do things like reverse the buy-sell equation at a stock exchange, allowing someone to sell at a higher price before buying at a lower one.

The Government Solution

What is to be done? The challenges have been extensively documented and discussed since at least the 1990s. In 2004, President Bush issued the National Space Policy (NSPD-39) that addressed the problem. Although portions of it are still classified, contained within the publically releasable section was direction for the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to, in coordination with the Department Homeland Security (DHS): “develop, acquire, operate, and maintain backup position, navigation, and timing capabilities that can support critical transportation, homeland security, and other critical civil and commercial infrastructure applications within the United States, in the event of a disruption of … space-based positioning, navigation, and timing services.”

eLoran Recommended. In response, the two departments consulted numerous experts and commissioned a study by the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA) to determine what system or systems should be procured. The IDA study team, which included Brad Parkinson, widely recognized as the father of GPS, unanimously recommended that an existing and outdated nation-wide navigation system called Loran-C be greatly updated and modernized to eLoran. Such a system would provide a navigation and timing signal comparable with and complementary to GPS. They concluded that:

“eLoran is the only cost-effective backup for national needs; it is completely interoperable with and independent of GPS, with different propagation and failure mechanisms, plus significantly superior robustness to radio frequency interference and jamming. It is a seamless backup, and its use will deter threats to US national and economic security by disrupting (jamming) GPS reception.”

What the IDA did not find, but that has since become evident, is that establishing an eLoran system could be an important part of a network to identify and locate jamming attempts. Since all eLoran transmitters would be synchronized with GPS, and many navigation receivers would have both GPS and eLoran sensors, differences between the two systems could be immediately detected and reported.

The body in charge of coordinating navigation and timing issues for the federal government is the National Space-Based Position Navigation and Timing Executive Committee (NPEC). It is chaired by the Deputy Secretaries of Transportation and Defense. Responding to early briefings on the IDA report (which was not formally published until 2009), the Departments of Transportation and Homeland Security in 2007 told the NPEC that they had decided eLoran was the right answer. After further federal deliberations over how to create an eLoran system, 2008 saw:

  • A press release by DHS saying that the department would implement eLoran, using the old Loran-C infrastructure (February 7, 2008)
  • The DHS 2009 Budget in Brief (February 2008) propose transferring legacy Loran-C systems and $34.5 million/year from Coast Guard to the National Protection & Programs Directorate (NPPD) within DHS, stating:

“The FY 2009 budget transfers the budget authority for the LORAN C system from the United Sates Coast Guard to the NPPD. The Department, acting as Executive Agent, will begin development of enhanced eLORAN as a backup for GPS in the homeland.”

  • The National PNT Executive Committee endorse the above decisions (March 2008).

Failure to Launch

Unfortunately, DHS funding for 2009 came as part of a continuing resolution, and the Congress did not see fit to approve the transfer of funds from Coast Guard to NPPD.

This was because influential members of Congress wanted the nation to have eLoran, but were concerned about the lack of a plan for transition of this important capability from one agency to another. The administration was asked to develop and submit a plan with with the next budget cycle. A year later, though, no plan had been presented, and the President’s request (and enacted legislation) for 2010 contained no request to move and upgrade the system. In fact, it contained provisions for shutting down and defunding the old Loran-C system without providing funds for NPPD or any other agency to establish the new eLoran capability.

No Solution at All. What happened between one budget year and the next to take the nation from “solution-in-hand” to “no solution at all” is not a matter of public record. Internal administration budget deliberations are not generally released to the public. It does appear, though, that a new administration putting together its first real budget quite rightly wanted to shut down an antiquated system, but did not understand the importance of a new one. This, and many other factors, unquestionably played a role.

Movement Backward

Without any funding, DHS has since conducted several studies and experiments, but has done very little of substance to address this critical infrastructure issue. While Department of Defense (DOD) officials talk about the need for resilience, experts throughout government and industry decry the lack of action, and the Department of Transportation still has acquiring “backup position, navigation, and timing capabilities” on its to-do list, none have seen fit to move forward on their own.

Felling Towers. Worse, DHS is actually reducing the nation’s ability to create eLoran and a wide-area interference detection and mitigation system. An ongoing effort to fell towers and dispose of equipment from the legacy Loran-C system will significantly increase the cost and time-to-operation of the new system the nation needs.

The Way Forward

Fortunately, awareness and understanding of the problem within government, and the general public has continued to grow.

The U.S. National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) Advisory Board published a seminal white paper in 2010 on the topic, strongly recommending the establishment of an eLoran system. Todd Humphreys, the UK navigation authority, and others have provided numerous graphic demonstrations of the folly of relying upon just one electronic navigation system, and how things can go horribly wrong. Some of these have been well publicized. Other incidents are known only to a few.

There are also signs that the U.S. intelligence, cyber, and defense communities are becoming more and more concerned. North Korea’s repeated jamming of satellite navigation and timing signals has delivered a particularly powerful lesson. South Korea has reacted by committing to establishment of a robust eLoran system. The UK has established an eLoran system and is expanding it. Russia and China have retained their versions of Loran-C and are using it to augment satellite services. Russia has announced it will upgrade its system to eLoran in cooperation with the UK, and China may not be far behind. Saudi Arabia is upgrading its system to eLoran, and India has plans for an eLoran network in the near future. In December, Iran announced it has established a land-based system with “powerful transmitters” that is “completely different with GPS.”

Allies, adversaries, and economic competitors are augmenting satellite services with strong terrestrial ones. The United States will soon be one of only a small number of major economies that does not have a strong, difficult-to-disrupt terrestrial system protecting its critical infrastructure and providing value-added utilities. DOD’s chief information officer expressed interest in eLoran as part of DOD’s pivot to the Pacific. But providing a system at home is not in Defense’s job description, nor should it be.

Respected leaders at the Departments of Transportation and Homeland Security still see this as an important issue that needs to be addressed. The question for them now is not one of technology. The technology decision made in 2008 has since been revalidated by a plethora of academic papers, risk estimates, and white papers. eLoran still appears to be the most effective and least expensive solution available. DOT and DHS must resolve questions of governance and how to fund the system in one of the most difficult federal budgetary climates in decades.

How? The answer could lie in a public-private partnership (P3). In such an arrangement, the government would bring its interests and the infrastructure it owns to the table. An entity in the non-profit sector or industry would provide investment to refurbish the infrastructure, stand up, and operate the system. Such a P3 enterprise could not only pay for itself, but be an on-going source of revenue for both the government and the private entity.

The Business Model: Demand

A well-configured eLoran system can provide navigation accuracy to within 8 to 10 meters and timing accuracy to within 30 nanoseconds. This meets the needs of an estimated 95 percent of users in the United States. While eLoran does not offer the sub-meter precision of a high end, augmented GPS/GNSS system, it has its own advantages. In addition to being very difficult to disrupt, its high-power (typically 400 kW transmitters), low-frequency (100 kHz) signal easily penetrates and is usable underground, inside buildings, and underwater — where satellite and cell phone signals on much higher frequencies cannot reach.

The UK experience with eLoran and private surveys in the United States have shown high commercial demand for a ubiquitous, wireless, precise, and resilient time and navigation service. Power companies want to synchronize grids with a signal that can’t be disrupted by a delivery driver trying to avoid being tracked by his boss. Cell phone companies would be happy to have alternative timing capability in their networks, provided through inexpensive eLoran receivers. Operators of autonomous vehicles want a robust navigation signal and guaranteed communications. And it would be welcomed by the many users who, research shows, rely upon GPS/GNSS time for mission-critical applications, and who have no secondary source on which to fall back in the event of a disruption.

Since eLoran easily penetrates inside buildings, underground, and underwater, it can be used for timing and navigation in many places where no other navigation and timing sources are available. For example, it has been used for underground and underwater navigation. When paired with an accurate satellite signal before going underground or submerging, eLoran could enable a navigation receiver to maintain a comparable level of precision for several hours. Even after that, it would provide the navigator an accurate underground/underwater compass, and a good position.

The eLoran navigation and timing system now in operation in the United Kingdom also generates revenue by transmitting data. While the full potential of this third-party data-channel capability is still being explored, the ability to assure data delivery to, and communicate with such areas is appealing to many commercial and government organizations. Potential first-responders and commercial benefits appear almost limitless.

The Business Model: Costs

The cost for the P3 to standup and operate an eLoran system in the United States would be exceptionally low. Most of the needed infrastructure is already owned by the federal government in the form of the sites for the shuttered Loran-C system. Many of these still have transmission towers and other equipment that could be repurposed. Re-using this infrastructure and equipment would greatly reduce both the time and expense needed, compared to standing up the new system from scratch.

Operating and maintenance costs would also be low. Solid-state equipment, remote monitoring, and other advances in technology make the process of re-establishing a transmission site fairly inexpensive. Today’s eLoran transmitting site consists of a tower, an equipment enclosure for the transmitter, a fence, and a backup generator. With only a modest investment to refurbish existing infrastructure, regular outlays to service capital debt would be minimal, at best.

Some estimates predict that a terrestrial precise navigation and timing system, such as the one established in the United Kingdom and the one up for contract by South Korea, could be established in the continental United States within three years and for approximately $40 million, if the existing infrastructure were repurposed. Operating costs are estimated at approximately $16 million per year.

Business Model: Revenues

Significant national and homeland security concerns, high demand, and low cost (especially compared to any government space program) — clearly, but for a series of unfortunate bureaucratic reasons, eLoran would have been established in the United States, probably as a government-owned and operated system, long ago.

But high demand and low cost are also excellent ingredients for a business enterprise, provided there are sources of revenue. An eLoran P3 could have multiple sources of revenue. Depending upon the type of partnership and business model(s) the government selected, surplus revenue could also be generated to help fund other programs or offset the deficit. Some of the possibilities include:

◾    Guaranteed Delivery Data Transmission. As mentioned earlier, eLoran’s high power and low frequency mean that the signal penetrates where few others will. In addition to navigation and timing information, which are inherent in the basic signal, low-rate data can also be included between the primary pulses. The highest demonstrated data transfer rate to date has been 1300 bps, which is fine for texting and issuing commands. Many believe that, with a modicum of research, that rate can be much higher. As the owner of the high-power transmitter network, the P3 would generate revenue the same as any telecommunications provider: by charging per message or for time on the network.

Applications could include:

• Assured wireless control of remote equipment and vehicles, including indoors, underground and underwater;
• Information delivery to first responders and other crews regardless of location — especially good for pre-programmed emergency and operational commands to evacuate, use another procedure, and so on.
• Immediate device updates and reprogramming. The ability to reach all of the enabled devices on a given network at the speed of light and virtually simultaneously has unlimited potential.

◾    PNT Interference Detection and Monitoring. One of the biggest challenges to countering jamming satellite navigation and timing signals is the lack of a detection network. The eLoran transmitter and receiver network will continuously synchronize with GPS/GNSS signals and instantly detect when differences between the two dissimilar systems occur. Instant reports could be generated to inform federal, state, and local authorities of the anomalies and their locations. Mobile disruptors could even be tracked as they drove down the highway, sailed through the port, or flew across the sky. The P3 could generate revenue by contracting to provide such information to private parties and government agencies concerned about interference incidents.

◾    Licensing Receivers. One of the simplest ways to generate revenue and endow the P3 would be for the government to assess a small fee on every eLoran and satellite navigation receiver sold in the United States. A one dollar fee per unit could generate more than $20 million per year and fund operation of the entire system. Such a fee could be discontinued as other sources of revenue from the system made it unnecessary.

◾    Broad-based User Fees. Since navigation and timing signals are essential to so much U.S. critical infrastructure, a case could be made that the cost to endow the P3 should be spread as broadly as possible across the technologies it supports. For example, a temporary 8-cent fee on every monthly U.S. cell phone and electric bill for just one year could provide enough funding to endow the P3 in perpetuity.

◾    Value-Added Services For High-End Users. More than 90 percent of the users of precise time in the United States require it at the microsecond (1,000 nanoseconds) level of accuracy. eLoran can provide a signal accurate to 30 nanoseconds. To achieve that level of precision, the eLoran network transmits data that compensates for low-frequency signal propagation over non-homogenous terrain. This correction data could be encrypted. Most users would access the signal at the microsecond level of accuracy for free. Revenue could be generated by charging those who desire the higher level of precision a fee for the encrypted portion of the signal.

eLoran is an essential national and homeland security capability. The above list of potential revenue sources is just a sampling of the many ways a P3 could be funded. The point is that financing the enterprise need not come from tax dollars, and should not be an obstacle to its creation.

The Public-Private-Partnership

The U.S. government has had some great successes solving previously intractable problems through public-private-partnerships. Probably the best known of these are the P3s formed for housing on military bases. Establishing a business model that has private partners constructing and managing on-base housing produced more and higher quality housing for our troops.

Such arragnements must be carefully managed, however.  Both the Congressional Budge Office and the Office of Management and Budget are understandably concerned that P3s may get a project going, but soon the costs may fall entirely on the government.

Success in any endeavor often depends upon its execution. The type of partnership the government selects and creates will be key. While, at its heart, a P3 is just a contract, the nature and provisions of government contracts are endlessly varied. Issues to address will include how the infrastructure is provided, if it is to be retained in perpetuity by the government or will be conveyed to the private party, what length of contract will allow the private partner to recoup its initial investment, and the business model(s) to be pursued.

The type of governance will also be important. Models vary from establishment of a self-funded government corporation to oversee daily operations, to an agency-supervised, performance-based contract that only requires regular reports on system availability and performance.

Of course, the concerns of CBO and OMB must be met. Fortunately, the federal government is not without experience with P3s. Also, there are many supporting resources available, such as the National Council for Public Private Partnerships.

We Have to Do It

Establishing a public-private partnership will bring together the best of both the government and the private sector. For its part, the government will bring the legacy infrastructure and its interest in safeguarding the public good to the table. The private sector will bring financing, technical know-how and innovation. A better system for America will result than would have been possible if either were to act alone.

It is unquestionably in our urgent national interest to address the problem now, before jamming becomes more widespread, or we have a larger, more damaging event. The need is clear. The technology exists and works great. All that remains is for dedicated leaders within government and the private sector to work together and implement the solution.


Dana A. Goward is the president and executive Director of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation, a non-profit organization devoted to educating people about the need for and encouraging resilient navigation and timing ecosystems with services that complement each other and have different failure modes. See www.RNTFnd.org.

GPS World staff

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2 Comments on "Expert Advice: The Low Cost of Protecting America"

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  1. Leatherstocking says:

    We’ve looked at daytime star tracking, reviving various LoRAN,Omega, or NAVbeacon strategies, even a secondary constellation. It will take a substantial investment in time and resources to provide a GPS alternative. If I were leading the OPFOR against the US, taking out GPS or degrading it over wide areas with airborne or ground jammers would be an early priority. China and Russia have the capability to wreck entire GPS orbits with 17,000 mph debris fields. This needs to be a priority but the Government is not moving. GPS is a victim of its overwhelming success – it has become a necessity.

  2. Jens Odd Hoxmark says:

    There should be adequate and sufficient fallback-systems to keep the basic navigation, positioning and timing system going in case of an unexpected and unwanted event should criple the NAVSTAR GPS for a short og extended period. A modern terrestrial proven solution to provide regional capabilities is Enhanced LORAN, the up-to-date solution for navigation, positioning and timing that represents an operational alternative anno 2014 and for decades to come.

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