In February of last year, President Donald Trump reversed long-standing administrative policy by issuing Executive Order (13905, Strengthening National Resilience Through Responsible Use of Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) Services.
The Global Positioning System has become the world’s most widely used technological utility. The Americas’ overdependence on it for everything from synchronizing cell phone networks to managing power grids has led government officials to call it a single point of failure for the country.
While the Trump order has rightly warned of the dangers of over-reliance on GPS, it has also moved away from years of executive politics. Rather than focusing on strengthening GPS and protecting users with one or more alternative PNT sources, the ordinance asked users to protect themselves by accessing commercial services that it was hoped would be developed to meet their needs. needs.
GPS signals underpin virtually all technology, but are weak, easily blocked, and imitated. And many studies have found a reasonable chance that the system will be damaged or destroyed by solar activity over the next 50 years. These vulnerabilities constitute an almost existential threat to the economy and the security of nations.
The Trump Orders warn users and many of its other provisions were necessary, but they were far from sufficient.
This is because the order ignored basic economic and security realities.
A free utility
America gave GPS its gift to the world in the hope that it would be widely adopted and used. Making the signal free and its specifications public has been a great success. So much so that as early as 1999, a special commission told President Bill Clinton that America was probably becoming too dependent on the system.
GPS quickly became a public service, just like a municipal water system, which serves all citizens in multiple ways.
Recognizing the limitations of GPS, a number of companies over the past decade have attempted to develop business models that provide backups and alternatives for GPS. While some have found niche markets with specialist users, just as Evian, Perrier and others have created niche markets for specialty water, no other NWP provider has been able to establish a extensive and widely adopted service. They simply cannot compete with the free government service of GPS.
The orders hope that the market will provide alternatives and that millions of people will be willing to pay a fee to subscribe is futile. Just as few Americans see the need to purchase a regular alternative supply of domestic water, few see the need to purchase PNT services to supplement and save GPS. Also, if something is wrong with the water or GPS, it is the utility providers’ fault, not theirs. The government will ensure that the problem is resolved.
A national security imperative
The impacts of prolonged GPS failure or loss of systems will make the COVID-19 pandemic appear to be an act of warm-up.
Our national government must prevent this as part of its fundamental duty to ensure common defense and promote general welfare.
The Trump-era policy promulgated by the ordinance focuses only on critical infrastructure and large companies doing business with the government. And he describes a difficult and unlikely path to protect them.
It largely ignores the first responders, local, state and federal agencies, the post office, drone operators, medium and small businesses in short, around 95% of the GPS users who help run the nation. Failure to protect so much of America from an outage will cripple law enforcement and other first responders, and dramatically diminish our ability to support any sustained military operation.
And since opposing nations like Russia, China, and Iran have Earthly backup systems, America will not only be crippled, but we will be much more weakened than those who wish us harm.
In fact, some observers have felt that the lack of a ground-based backup system for GPS in the Americas has already damaged our national security by providing both terrorists and enemies with an unusually attractive target. This has certainly put America at a tactical and strategic disadvantage in many situations already.
The goal: to make the nation safer
Having alternative systems will make satellites and GPS signals less attractive targets and therefore more immune to malicious interference. They will also make the country safer by removing a single point of failure vulnerable to solar activity, malicious threats and accidents.
But to do this, as many GPS users as possible must also adopt and use one or more alternative systems.
Anything that prevents adoption, such as limiting it to critical infrastructure, availability only in urban areas, access fees, etc., reduces the protection of the nation.
Even if Trump’s complicated plan to force big corporations to build systems to protect themselves worked, he would still deliver far less than the United States needs.
America needs what our adversaries already have: terrestrial PNT systems that are easily accessible and accessible to all. Systems that will work in concert with GPS when it is available and serve in its place when it is not.
Dana A. Goward retired from the Federal Senior Management Service and is President of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation.
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