Tag Archives: GPS jammers

Poker and Blackjack: How to Make War in Space

In March 2018, India became only the fourth country in the world—after Russia, the US, and China—to successfully destroy a satellite in orbit. Mission Shakti, as it was called, was a demonstration of a direct-ascent anti-satellite weapon (ASAT)—or in plain English, a missile launched from the ground. Typically this type of ASAT has a “kill vehicle,” essentially a chunk of metal with its own guidance system, mounted on top of a ballistic missile. Shortly after the missile leaves the atmosphere, the kill vehicle detaches from it and makes small course corrections as it approaches the target. No explosives are needed; at orbital speeds, kinetic energy does the damage…. China’s own first successful ASAT test was in 2007….

But going to war in space… doesn’t necessarily mean blowing up satellites. Less aggressive methods typically involve cyberattacks to interfere with the data flows between satellites and the ground stations.  Satellites are, after all, computers that happen to be in space, so they are vulnerable to attacks that disable or hijack them, just like their terrestrial peers.

For example, in 2008, a cyberattack on a ground station in Norway let someone cause 12 minutes of interference with NASA’s Landsat satellites. Later that year, hackers gained access to NASA’s Terra Earth observation satellite and did everything but issue commands. It’s not clear if they could have done so but chose not to. Nor is it clear who was behind the attack, although some commentators at the time pointed the finger at China. Experts warn that hackers could shut off a satellite’s communications, rendering it useless. Or they could permanently damage it by burning off all its propellant or pointing its imaging sensor at the sun to burn it out.

Another common mode of attack is to jam or spoof satellite signals. There is nothing fancy about this: it’s easier than hacking, and all the gear required is commercially available.  Jammers, often mounted on the back of trucks, operate at the same frequency as GPS or other satellite communication systems to block their signals. …There are strong suspicions that Russia has been jamming GPS signals during NATO exercises in Norway and Finland, and using similar tactics in other conflicts. “Russia is absolutely attacking space systems using jammers throughout the Ukraine,” says Weeden. Jamming is hard to distinguish from unintentional interference, making attribution difficult (the US military regularly jams its own communications satellites by accident). A recent report from the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) claims that China is now developing jammers that can target a wide range of frequencies, including military communication bands. North Korea is believed to have bought jammers from Russia, and insurgent groups in Iraq and Afghanistan have been known to use them too.

Spoofing, meanwhile, puts out a fake signal that tricks GPS or other satellite receivers on the ground…. Russia also seems to use spoofing as a way of protecting critical infrastructure,,,.As well as being hard to pin on anyone, jamming and spoofing can sow doubt in an enemy’s mind about whether they can trust their own equipment when needed. The processes can also be switched off at any time, which makes attribution even harder.

The 2019 Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report suggests that China will have a ground-based laser that can destroy a satellite’s optical sensors in low Earth orbit as early as next year (and that will, by the mid-2020s, be capable of damaging the structure of the satellite). Generally, the intention with lasers is not to blast a satellite out of the sky but to overwhelm its image sensor so it can’t photograph sensitive locations. The damage can be temporary, unless the laser is powerful enough to make it permanent…In 2006, US officials claimed that China was aiming lasers at US imaging satellites passing over Chinese territory.

“It’s happening all the time at this low level,” says Harrison. “It’s more gray-zone aggression. Countries are pushing the limits of accepted behavior and challenging norms. They’re staying below the threshold of conflict.”..

The suspicion is that China is practicing for something known as a co-orbital attack, in which an object is sent into orbit near a target satellite, maneuvers itself into position, and then waits for an order. Such exercises could have less aggressive purposes—inspecting other satellites or repairing or disposing of them, perhaps. But co-orbiting might also be used to jam or snoop on enemy satellites’ data, or even to attack them physically….Russia, too, has been playing about in geostationary orbit. One of its satellites, Olymp-K, began moving about regularly, at one point getting in between two Intelsat commercial satellites. Another time, it got so close to a French-Italian military satellite that the French government called it an act of “espionage.” The US, similarly, has tested a number of small satellites that can maneuver around in space.

As the dominant player in space for decades, the US now has the most to lose. The DIA report points out that both China and Russia reorganized their militaries to give space warfare a far more central role. In response, the US military is starting to make satellites tougher to find and attack. For instance, the NTS-3, a new experimental GPS satellite scheduled for launch in 2022, will have programmable, steerable antennas that can broadcast at higher power to counter jamming. It’s designed to remain accurate even if it loses its connection with ground controllers, and to detect efforts to jam its signal.

Another solution is not just to make single satellites more resilient, but to use constellations in which any one satellite is not that important. That’s the thinking behind Blackjack, a new DARPA program to create a cheap network of military communications satellites in low Earth orbit.

Excerpts from Niall Firth How to fight a war in space (and get away with it), MIT Technology Review, June 26, 2019

Smart War: find and kill

[T] he Global Positioning System (GPS) of orbiting satellites on which they rely was originally—and, indeed, remains—a military technology. The system is, for instance, relied upon by the JDAM (joint direct-attack munition) kits that America’s air force attaches to its free-fall bombs to turn them into smart weapons that can be guided with precision to their targets.

But JDAM and similar systems work only when they can receive signals from GPS satellites. And such signals are weak—approximately as powerful as a standard television transmission would be if the transmitter were five times as far away as the Moon is. They are thus easily jammed. For obvious reasons, details of the capabilities of jammers are hard to come by, but a Russian system called Pole-21, for instance, may be able to suppress GPS signals as much as 80km (50 miles) away.

One way to get around this—and to guide weapons automatically to their targets without relying on satellites—is to give weapons a map…. Israel is in the forefront, with a system which it calls Spice. Like JDAM, Spice is an add-on kit that turns unguided bombs into smart ones. It is designed and built by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, an Israeli weapons company, and comes into service this month.

Spice contains an “electro-optical scene matching system” … [I]ts memory is loaded with pictures of the target area, taken beforehand by aircraft (piloted or unpiloted) or by satellite. …Spice can operate in darkness, and can penetrate smoke and fog. Moreover..Spice stores enough data to cover the entire route to a target.

Spice’s claimed performance is impressive. Rafael says it can guide a bomb released 100km from a target to a strike point within two metres of that target. The firm says, too, that its device is not confused by minor changes in the scenery around a target, which it can find even if some nearby areas have been obscured—say, by camouflage. Spice also has the advantage over GPS-guided weapons of working when a target’s exact position is unknown, or if the co-ordinates have been misreported. All you need is a picture of what is to be hit, and an approximate location, for Spice to find and hit it.

Other countries, in particular America, are following Israel’s lead. In January of this year, America’s air force signed a contract with Scientific Systems, a firm in Woburn, Massachusetts, to develop what that company calls its Image-Based Navigation and Precision Targeting (ImageNav) system….The initial plan is to fit ImageNav to the air force’s Small Diameter Bomb, a free-fall weapon at present guided by GPS. If this is successful, deployment on cruise missiles and drones will follow.

Meanwhile Lockheed Martin, the world’s biggest aerospace firm, is working on an optical-navigation system called Northstar.

Fitting bombs and missiles with vision in this way thus looks like the future. That does not mean GPS will not be used as well—a belt-and-braces approach is often wise in war. But bombs that can see their targets, rather than blindly following their noses to a set of co-ordinates, are always likely to have the edge.

Excerpts Bombs that can recognise their targets are back in fashion, Economist, Dec. 3, 2016

A Barbed Wire for Outer Space

In 2007 a missile launch by the Chinese in 2007 blew up a dead satellite and littered space with thousands of pieces of debris. But it was another Chinese launch  in 2013 that made the Pentagon really snap to attention, opening up the possibility that outer space would become a new front in modern warfare.  This time, the rocket reached close to a far more distant orbit — one that’s more than 22,000 miles away — and just happens to be where the United States parks its most sensitive national security satellites, used for tasks such as guiding precision bombs and spying on adversaries.

The flyby served as a wake-up call and prompted the Defense Department and intelligence agencies to begin spending billions of dollars to protect what Air Force Gen. John Hyten in an interview called the “most valuable real estate in space.”..[I]nstead of relying only on large and expensive systems, defense officials plan to send swarms of small satellites into orbit that are much more difficult to target–GPS III is the next generation of GPS satellites..

At the same time..[a]gencies have begun participating in war-game scenarios involving space combat at the recently activated Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center. The Pentagon is even developing what is known as the “Space Fence,” which would allow it to better track debris in space.

National security officials are not only concerned that missiles could take out their satellites but also that a craft’s equipment could be easily jammed. Potential enemies could “dazzle” sensors, temporarily blinding them, or deploy tiny “parasitic satellites” that attach to host satellites and do their worst. That could lead to soldiers stranded on the battlefield with little means of communication or missiles that would not be able to find their targets.  “We have considered space a sanctuary for quite some time. And therefore a lot of our systems are big, expensive, enormously capable, but enormously vulnerable,” said Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work.

Pentagon officials say that Russia and China have been developing the capability to attack the United States in space…Pentagon officials fear its satellites could be sitting ducks. Navy Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, said recently that North Korea has successfully jammed GPS satellites, that Iran was busy building a space program and that “violent extremist organizations” were able to access space-based technologies to help them encrypt communications, among other things.

The Pentagon spends $22 billion on space programs and is investing an additional $5 billion in space efforts this year, including $2 billion for what is known as “space control,” which includes its highly classified offensive programs. Hyten declined to discuss the ways in which the United States is preparing to attack other countries in space. But the United States has had the capability to blow up satellites since 1985, when an F-15 fighter pilot fired a missile into space that took out an old military observation satellite.

Excerpts from  Christian Davenport: A fight to protect ‘the most valuable real estate in space, Washington Post, May 9, 2016

Unhackable GPS

South Korea has revived a project to build a backup ship navigation system that would be difficult to hack after a recent wave of GPS signal jamming attacks it blamed on North Korea disrupted fishing vessel operations, officials say.Global Positioning System (GPS) and other electronic navigation aids are vulnerable to signal loss from solar weather effects, radio and satellite interference and deliberate jamming.

South Korea, which says it has faced repeated attempts by the rival North to interfere with satellite signals, will award a 15 billion won ($13 million) contract this month to secure technology required to build an alternative land-based radio system called eLoran (enhanced LOng-RAnge Navigation), which it hopes will provide reliable alternative position and timing signals for navigation….

GPS vulnerability poses security and commercial risks, especially for ships whose crews are not familiar with traditional navigation techniques or using paper charts.The General Lighthouse Authorities of the UK and Ireland, which tried to pioneer an eLoran system in Europe, conducted simulated communications attacks on ships at sea and said the results “demonstrated the devastating effects of jamming on the ships’ electronic bridge systems”.The United States, Russia and India are all looking into deploying versions of eLoran, which sends a much stronger signal and is harder to jam, as backup.

Installing an eLoran receiver and antenna on a ship would cost thousands of dollars, although cheaper options could include incorporating eLoran systems into satnav devices, according to technical specialists.

Excerpts from South Korea Revives GPS Backup After Cyber Attack  , euters, May 1, 2016

GPS Jammers and Spoofers

GPS jammers are cheap: a driver can buy a dashboard model for about £50 ($78). They are a growing menace. The bubbles of electromagnetic noise they create interfere with legitimate GPS users. They can disrupt civil aviation and kill mobile-phone signals, too. In America their sale and use is banned. In Britain they are illegal for civilians to use deliberately, but not, yet, to buy: Ofcom, a regulator, is mulling a ban. In recent years Australian officials have destroyed hundreds of jammers.

In the right (or wrong) hands, they are potential weapons. Britain’s armed services test the devices in the Brecon Beacons in Wales, a military training area. North Korea uses big lorry-mounted versions to block GPS signals in South Korea. Starting with a four-day burst in August 2010, the attacks, which come from three positions inside the North, have lengthened. In early 2012 they ran for 16 days, causing 1,016 aircraft and 254 ships to report disruption…Criminals or terrorists could knock out GPS for an entire city or shipping lane anywhere in a flash. Even without North Korean-sized contraptions, the jamming can be substantial. Suitcase-sized devices on sale on the internet claim a range of 300-1,000 metres.

Malfunctioning satellites and natural interference from solar activity have hit GPS signals and sent ships off course. David Last, a navigation expert, says an accidental power cut, perhaps caused by a jammer taken on board a car ferry, could cause a shipwreck. Generating a false signal—spoofing—is another threat. In December 2011 Iran said it had spoofed an American drone before capturing it (most experts dismiss the claim). So far effective spoofing seems confined to laboratories, but Mr Last says some governments are already taking countermeasures.

One solution is a different means of navigation. In April South Korea announced plans for a network of 43 eLoran (enhanced long-range navigation) ground-based radio towers, based on technology first used in the second world war. It uses a far stronger signal than GPS, and should give pilots and ships’ captains a safer alternative by 2016. With Chinese and Russian help, South Korea hopes to expand coverage across the region.  Britain’s General Lighthouse Authorities (GLA) are following suit with seven new eLoran stations. Martin Bransby, an engineer with the GLA, says this will replace visual navigation as the main backup for GPS. It will be working by mid-2014, and cost less than £700,000; receivers cost £2,000 per vessel. By 2019 coverage should reach all big British ports.

America’s military-research agency DARPA has an experimental “single-chip timing and inertial measurement unit” (TIMU). When finished, according to the project’s boss, Andrei Shkel, it will use tiny gyroscopes and accelerometers to track its position without using satellites or radio towers. America’s White Sands missile range in New Mexico is installing a “Non-GPS Based Positioning System”, using ground-based antennae to provide centimetre-level positioning over 2,500 square miles. In May the Canadian government said it would splash out on anti-jam upgrades for military aircraft.

A new version of the US air force’s bunker-busting bomb, designed in part to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities, includes technology to prevent defenders from blocking its satellite-based guidance systems. MBDA, a European missile firm, is working on similar lines.

But for many users, GPS and other space-based navigation systems—which include Russia’s GLONASS, China’s partly complete Beidou, and an as-yet unfinished project by the European Union—remain indispensable and ubiquitous. They are also vulnerable. For those whose lives or livelihoods depend on knowing where they are, more resilient substitutes cannot come fast enough.

GPS jamming: Out of sight, Economist, July 27, 2013, at 51