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Service and Security

The vulnerability of our timing and transportation infrastructure

Glen Gibbons
If the 2001 Volpe report was repeated today, assessing the effects of the vulnerability of the world's timing infrastructure as well as transportation...well, no one really wants to think about that.

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I have had many occasions to reflect on the unfortunate timing of the release of the Volpe Transportation Center report, “Vulnerability Assessment of the Transportation Infrastructure Relying on the Global Positioning System.”

Just to refresh our memories, the Volpe report came out on Monday, September 10, 2001.

Yes, that’s right — the day before 9/11/01. And all those first responders rolling up to the World Trade Center plaza the next day were just a little too late to do much about it — not that preventing this particular act of terrorism was a matter for local agencies.

So, now we’ve blown through another nine years without really addressing the issue. And if Volpe repeated its study today, only assessing the effects of the vulnerability of the world’s timing infrastructure as well as transportation . . . well, no one really wants to think about that.

And so nothing has really been done about it.

A 2004 presidential directive handed the mandate —unfunded — for GPS interference detection and mitigation for domestic civil use to the Department of Homeland Security. That omnibus agency is still doing its Hurricane Katrina best to cobble together dozens of unrelated agencies pulled from all over the federal organization chart.

(An interesting aside: the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency quietly implemented a GPS jamming detection and location system for U.S. military users in 2007.)

Of course, not all injuries stem from malevolence or external sources. Some are self-inflicted.

Consider the recent kerfuffle about the GPS Architecture Evolution Plan software upgrade. Turns out that V5.5C made use of a couple of formerly ignored frames in the GPS navigation message, which one (or perhaps a few) receiver manufacturers had foolishly assumed were theirs to play with. When the 2nd Space Ops folks flipped the switch on the upgrade, some interesting receiver behavior ensued.

The big story here isn’t that a few receivers faltered — even though one model was a type of timing receiver installed at cell phone base stations. GPS users are familiar with temporary outages from blocked signals and the occasional errant satellite.

The real story is that nobody made a concerted outreach ahead of the event to engage, inform, and incorporate the knowledge and concerns of the broader GNSS industry and user communities about the impending change.

The Defense Department’s recent acquisition mantra of “back to basics” shouldn’t be confused with back to the bunker. But the Wing in recent years has increasingly limited its engagement to the comfortable realm of Air Force relationships, manufacturers of military user equipment, and GPS program vendors and consultants, such as the GPS Independent Review Team.

We might find a ray of hope in the incoming commander at the GPS Wing, who is on record as backing a “customer” rather than “service provider” approach to program responsibilities. This could well be extended beyond the military customers in the combatant commands to civil users, even those in other nations.

One of the many ironies of the GPS program is that, while conceived for and driven by military requirements, 90 percent of its users come from commercial and consumer application markets. The source of funding for the program, of course, is almost the inverse of that. Of the $1.23 billion in GPS expenditures proposed by the president in fiscal year 2011, only about $176 million will come from civil departmental budgets.

Well, he who pays the piper calls the tune, right? But wait — hold the phone — the Pentagon budget is paid out of general tax revenues.

Ultimately, as with all military expenditures, the armed forces — in this case, the U.S. Air Force — acts as the agent in carrying out a broad national mandate to serve and protect everyone.

Even unprepared manufacturers, journalists, and geocachers off the beaten track.

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