Wednesday, October 18, 2017

GPS Vulnerability - Stupid Followed By Stupid

This blog has, for years, trumpeted the warning that we are critically overdependent on navigational technology, principally GPS, that will be unavailable or only sporadically available in a peer war.  Our navigational technology addiction has crippled and all but eliminated our fundamental navigational skills.  Our soldiers and sailors no longer know how to read a map, use a compass or sextant, or execute dead reckoning with a stopwatch. 

Once upon a time, we had mastered basic non-technological navigation skills.  The Marine Corps LAVs in Desert Storm navigated the featureless deserts with nothing but dead reckoning.  For years, pilots mastered the ability to achieve precise time-on-target with nothing more than a plotting board and a stopwatch.  Sailors were able to establish their position with a sextant.  All soldiers used to have to master map reading and overland navigation with a map, compass, and stride length.

Now, our Navy is lost without GPS and even has trouble navigating with radar fixes.  Ships are running aground in known waters.  The riverine boat crews that were captured by Iran were completely lost. 

We have an addict’s dependency on technology that is not going to be available in a peer war.  What’s our response?  How are we planning to address this vulnerability?  What will we do to eliminate our dependency on technology?

You guessed it!  We’re going to create new technology.  Why go back to mastering fundamentals when you can create expensive and unreliable new technology?

Seriously, I’m not making this up.  Our solution to our technology dependency is to create new technology.  From a Defense News website article,

“In the quest to provide positioning, navigation and timing to troops deprived of GPS, Army planners are developing an open-architecture system of plug-and-play sensors that could deliver such a capability.

… The potential PNT [positioning, navigation, timing] solution would use modular hardware and software on a tactical computer.

“It will be a sensor fusion filter that will allow us to hook up any sensor to the filter, and the filter will understand what the sensor is, what the data is and how to integrate that into a single PNT solution,” said Adam Schofield, the chief at the Emerging Technologies Branch of the Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center, or CERDEC.” (1)

So, rather than teach basic navigation, we’re going to develop a gazillion dollar technological solution that is, supposedly, omniscient, able to take any sensor, integrate it on the fly, and provide a totally flexible and instantly adaptable synthesized navigation solution.  I can’t see anything that could go wrong with that!

Best of all, it can fit and run on a standard laptop computer.  I can see it now – our soldiers leaping into battle, clutching their rifle in one hand and their laptop in the other.  Plus, we all know how reliable laptops inherently are.  I can’t see the dirt, mud, water, shock, vibration, and electromagnetic jamming on the battlefield having any negative effect on the laptop!

What’s more, we’re basing the whole thing on an open architecture scheme.  That’s great!  It offers complete flexibility and adaptability.  Of course, it also offers complete access to an enemy’s cyber attacks and hacking!

The Department of Defense must have a group whose job is to come up with idiotic ideas that the rest of us would just reject out of hand.


(1)Defense News website, “Army wants constant PNT capability for troops without GPS”, Adam Stone, 17-Oct-2017,


  1. " I can see it now – our soldiers leaping into battle, clutching their rifle in one hand and their laptop in the other. "

    When I read this, I played the youtube video in my head of the lady walking into the water fountain, nose in her phone.

    I get your point, but this initiative is clearly still in a DARPA-esque stage. Your point still stands however. Our center of gravity is clearly over reliance on electronics and anything electrical in general.

    I have been out of the game for 10 years now, so I can't speak to current practices, but basic land nav was an important piece of the Infantry curriculum in the school house. It was even practiced in the fleet and while we had gps receivers and hand me down blue force trackers from the army, etc, our primary navigational source was a well used laminated map. Everyone down to the E-1 was expected to be able to navigate by it.

    Just don't expect your spouse to use 10 digit grids when you get out.

  2. "The Department of Defense must have a group whose job is to come up with idiotic ideas that the rest of us would just reject out of hand."

    That group consists of the 0-6s looking to make Flag by getting a new big program started so that their current Flag can get a great retirement job at the Defense Contractor that out lobbies the rest to land the contract.

    We have met the enemy and he is us. - POGO

    PS - if you can't read a map you shouldn't be armed.

  3. We did old style land navigation when I went through army basic and artillery training twenty-some years ago. My job in the navy had nothing to do with navigation but I knew a QM in ship's navigation who was all into sextants and star charts. These are very valuable skills but there's more profit to be made in selling tech gadgets than in training. As more social training is being mandated, there is less time to train in mission critical skills; just put another gadget in the soldier/sailor's hand.


    1. "As more social training is being mandated, there is less time to train in mission critical skills"

      That's just a great observation. We now devote time to gender issues, diversity, sensitivity, climate change, transgender issues, maternity and paternity leave, etc. Time is a zero-sum game. All that time has to come from somewhere and the somewhere is mission critical skills, as you astutely point out.

      Great comment.

  4. Hyperbolic radio navigation, Loran/Gee, were a major help in WWII eg bombing accuracy, so some navigational technology is required, not disputing your main argument:)

    Understand the vulnerability of GPS and lack of back up for ship navigation, modern Loran which offered more resilience has been neglected and now non-operational. Another outside possibility is the quantum positioning system being developed for submarines, as the weak GPS signal cannot penetrate water submarines rely on INS but accuracy degrades over time. A quantum positioning system is a stand alone system so it cannot easily be jammed, though am sure there are development problems (the accelerometer can’t distinguish between tiny gravitational effects and accelerations caused by submarines movement) and high cost to overcome before being miniaturized.

    1. I'm not against navigational technology aids. I'm against abandoning fundamental navigation practices in the pursuit of technology. Sooner or later, all navigation technology fails and if you have no basic skills to fall back on, you're out of the game, probably with fatal consequences. Navigation tech should be a complement to, not replacement for, fundamental skills. Sooner or later, everything fails in combat. We must have basic skills for when that happens. Right now, we don't have basic skills and, as a result, we have ships running aground and getting lost at sea - and this is in peacetime when no one is attempting to disrupt our technology!!!


      -Port Royal ran aground because it lost GPS and no one knew what to do

      -The two riverine boats were utterly lost and wandered into Iranian waters

      -An Avenger ran aground (I don't know the circumstances of that one)

      -The Antietam ran aground (don't know the circumstances but, clearly, no one knew where they were)

      -Two Burkes were rammed by giant cargo ships. While not precisely a navigational technology issue, all the detection and tracking tech failed and we didn't even have simple, basic lookouts - or, if we did, they didn't know how to do their jobs.

      -USS Lake Champlain collided with a Korea fishing ship. Again, a failure of technology and no lookouts.

      I can go one but it's clear that we have become so dependent on technology that we've lost the simple ability to post lookouts and SEE THE BIG SHIP COMING STRAIGHT AT US.

      We're like the drug addict. We'd rather get rammed and run aground than give up our technology.

    2. "What’s more, we’re basing the whole thing on an open architecture scheme. That’s great! It offers complete flexibility and adaptability. Of course, it also offers complete access to an enemy’s cyber attacks and hacking!"

      Yeah. I don't think you understand what open architecture actually means.

    3. Open architecture (OA), in the strictest and simplest sense, refers to hardware interfaces that are publicly documented and freely usable as opposed to proprietary interfaces. OA allows any manufacturer to easily add equipment.

      The term OA has also been applied, in a somewhat bastardized sense, to software which also uses interfaces (input and output data interfaces, in this case) that are public, documented, and free of encumbrances.

      As a consequence of OA, hardware can be easily added to, modified, and expanded. The flip side of OA is that anyone wishing to attack the system has complete access to the specifications necessary to interface with the system (again, as opposed to a proprietary system where the interfaces are, in theory, unknown to the public). This facilitated access allows anyone to easily attack the system via hardware (or software) add-ins. These system add-ins can be almost any system component.

      Obviously, a non-OA (proprietary) system is more resistant to unauthorized access and attack due to the fact that the interfaces are not readily known. How true that is in the face of NKorean, Russian, Chinese, and Iranian hacking is debatable but OA certainly makes system attacks easier.

      Now, why don't you go ahead and explain what you think I don't understand about what OA actually means. And, next time perhaps you can offer a bit more constructive comment than the utterly useless and uninformative one line comment you did.

  5. The problem starts with politicians who see their main job as channelling the taxpayers' money to their districts. That makes them favour organisations that spend a lot of money - which a large and technologically advanced military is bound to do anyway - and biases those organisations to try to solve problems with money, rather than training their people. And so we end up with this nonsense.


Comments will be moderated for posts older than 30 days in order to reduce spam.