(Hudson NY/Taylor Dinerman) It appears that members of the current administration have put the reliability and safety of the GPS signal at risk to support an ambitious commercial communications project largely owned by one of the President’s major campaign contributors. The LightSquared proposal for a $7- $8 billion mobile broadband system is, according to the Coalition to save GPS who are quoted in the June 20 2011 edition of Space News saying that “all testing done so far shows that LightSquared cannot operate as planned without devastating GPS.”
The American government’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which controls frequency use in the US, has, it seems, come under pressure from the White House to approve LightSquared’s application to use frequencies that may interfere with the GPS signal. If the Administration tried to tamper with the testimony of US Air Force Space Command’s commander General Shelton to facilitate the LightSquared project, it would show an unimaginable level of recklessness.
Over the last thirty years the US has spent more than $100 billion building and operating the GPS system. To put this investment at risk — especially to please a campaign contributor — will have lasting effects on both US national security and America’s international position.
Since it came into use in 1990, the US Air Force’s GPS system has excited admiration and envy throughout the world. Former President Chirac of France complained that it was making the Europeans into “Technological vassals of the Americans.” Keeping the system healthy and safe has been a major policy priority of the George H. W. Bush, Clinton and George W, Bush administrations. The Obama administration’s own National Space Policy, published in June 2010, says that “The United States must maintain its leadership in the service, provision and the use of global navigation satellite systems [GPSs].
Although it is not often mentioned, the GPS is also an essential part of out nuclear deterrent. The guidance system on missiles, bombers and submarines all use the GPS, as well as its backup systems, to maintain the capacity for precision targeting of US nuclear warheads. It is no wonder that the opponents of global civilization, and of America in particular, have sought ways to jam, or knock out the system.
The North Koreans recently launched a major jamming attack on the GPS signal that interfered with the system’s operation to the extent that a US intelligence-gathering aircraft was forced to land with its mission uncompleted. In 1991, US Air Force officers were happy to explain that Saddam’s attempt to transmit a jamming signal against the GP S system failed. The USAF simply destroyed the transmitter using a GPS guided bomb.
In 2004 the US government forced the European Union to agree to change its plans to transmit a radio frequency signal that would have endangered the smooth operation of one of the GPS signals from its Galileo satellite navigation system. The uneven history of the development of the Galileo system, and the failure of the Europeans to find a workable “commercial” model for its development, is a sign of just how expensive and difficult it is to make a system like GPS work reliably and safely.
The frequencies used to transmit the GPS signals are assigned to the US government by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) based in Geneva, Switzerland. The main frequencies, and others nearby on the electromagnetic spectrum whose use can interfere with the GPS signal, are highly coveted by America’s rivals, such as the European Union and China. Keeping US control of these frequencies is a constant political struggle. America’s diplomats have so far been successful, thanks in large part to the internationally recognized reliability and utility of the GPS system.
As this scandal unfolds, the ITU and those who seek to break America’s hold on the GPS signal frequencies will be watching carefully. If they see that the White House was prepared to endanger the integrity and reliability of the GPS signal to satisfy a campaign contributor, the effects could be disastrous. The next time a nation or group of nations try and convince the ITU to allow them to transmit signals that may harm the effectiveness of the GPS signal, the international bureaucrats in Geneva may decide to go along with the request. After all, they might reason, if the US President doesn’t care to protect the safety and integrity of the GPS signals, why should they?
The GPS system consists of a constellation of 31 satellites and two ground control stations,with the main one in Colorado and a back-up one in Maryland. Each satellite contains a highly accurate atomic clock and a set of transmitters. The satellites send a set of signals down to Earth where receivers measure the difference in the timing of the reception of each signal, known as the “Time Offset.” As the Air Force “Space Primer says, ” Based on the time offset, the distance between the satellite and the receiver can be determined. This process is followed for at least four satellites. The cumulative information is entered into the position equations and calculated.” The receiver then shows where the receiver is on Earth, helps one to navigate and also gives us access to an amazingly accurate time measuring device.
The GPS has made possible, fror example, an agricultural revolution called “Precision Farming,” whereby farmers, by combining their knowledge of their fields’ geology and the GPS signal, have been able to reduce radically the amounts of fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides they need to grow their crops. Other uses include banking, and of course the GPS receivers that the public uses for everything from hiking to getting to the grocery store. America’s GPS has gone from being considered an expensive military luxury in the 1980s, to being a war-winning technology in the 1991 Gulf War, and now to being an essential part of 21st century civilized life
If someone inside the White House tried to get Shelton to say that “he hoped the necessary testing for LightSquared could be completed within 90 days.” This is particularly problematic, as General Shelton obviously knows that the Defense Department cannot order a new screwdriver in less than six months, let alone test and certify as safe a major potential modification to way the US government uses radio frequencies.