Today Americans use GPS to casually find the closest Starbucks, or in instances as complicated as plotting shipping lanes amid changing channels. However this vital system is in dangerous disrepair and worse, susceptible to cyberattack.
The forebear to our GPS technology today was originally designed for the Department of Defense to scrutinize military movements, but evolved into the navigation and mapping tools we all now enjoy.
This once classified military technology was released to the public more than two decades ago and was quickly adapted and widely disseminated for civilian use. It has become second nature to use Google Maps, Apple Maps, Waze, and other apps contingent on GPS technology. Not only are GPS-based tools convenient, we are increasingly reliant on them; try to find a bi-fold paper map at a gas station today.
However, this vital tool is in danger. Not just from Chinese missile systems, which are capable of targeting the GPS network of satellites, but increasingly from our own gross mismanagement and under investment. A Government Accountability Office report from a few years ago said it expected GPS satellites to begin crumbling as early as 2010.
In the last year we have also seen a slew of prominent cyber thefts and destruction of digital property by hackers, both in the government and private sector. The GPS system is as susceptible to these threats as our other government networks and remains largely “unhardened” to these attacks. While the Air Force has begun the development process to rectify the cybersecurity issue with its GPS OCX program, it has fallen behind schedule and over budget.
While that tune is familiar in Congress and the Pentagon, this program should not be dismissed out of hand. Too much of our economy is at stake to allow the GPS system to be disrupted by an attack. Whether it seems to present a challenge to hackers, or is a necessary prepping of the battle space by a future adversary, a halt in services to the GPS system would damage the U.S. economy and our way of life.
We saw the Russians use cyberwarfare to damage Georgian systems prior to their invasion in 2008. They have prepped the battle space by diminishing Ukrainian capabilities as well. The Chinese, North Koreans and Iranians have all used cyberattacks to intimidate political opponents or punish enemies.
Military use aside, the American economy would be extremely challenged by an attack on our GPS capabilities, and our government, pressed by many critically underfunded programs, has let one more slip through the cracks. But unlike the Joint Strike Fighter or a list of other over budget military programs, GPS is directly used by a majority of Americans, and by multiple industries. The financial services sector even uses GPS to manage part of its computer systems responsible for timing trades, something critical to Wall Street and main street businesses.
The GPS OCX program will help protect our country’s prosperity and security moving forward. Air Force General Roger Teague, the director of Space Programs acquisition, said it would be “the most hardened information assurance system ever delivered by the Department of Defense.”
Next time you’re finding the route to your grandmother’s for Christmas, remember why GPS was developed, and at great cost. Today our country needs functional, cyber-hardened GPS services more than ever. The Air Force must maintain funding for this infrastructure, ensure appropriate management of those resources and continue the development of the GPS OCX program. Abandoning the project halfway through is a further waste of money, sends a dangerous message to our nation’s adversaries, and could be a potentially perilous decision for our future.