U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Lorenzo Johnson examines his Global Positioning System receiver during a route reconnaissance patrol of Alternate Supply Route Boston in Iraq.

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Lorenzo Johnson examines his Global Positioning System receiver during a route reconnaissance patrol of Alternate Supply Route Boston in Iraq. DoD photo by Cpl. Brian A. Jaques, U.S. Marine Corps.

New Chips Could Patch the Military’s GPS Vulnerability

The Pentagon hopes that new location technology can ward off jammers and spoofers without breaking the bank.

The Global Positioning System has given the U.S. military an edge on the battlefield for decades. Just about every piece of military electronic equipment – hundreds of millions of aircraft, drones, vehicles, radios, computers and guided bombs – relies on the technology.

So it’s no wonder China and other countries are working to develop gear that jams GPS signals, or even spoofs them — allowing, say, bombs to be sent away from their intended targets. And that’s why Pentagon leaders are looking for ways to pinpoint locations anywhere on the globe without GPS.

“I think the big technology is going to be the chipset atomic clock that gives you that accurate timing all the time,” Gen. John Hyten, the head of Air Force Space Command, said at a Defense Writers Group breakfast on Tuesday.

Last week at Stanford University, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter last week said the military was hunting for GPS alternatives that are more resilient and less vulnerable. “We’ll do that in part by advancing microelectromechanical systems technology for small inertial navigation units, small accurate accelerometers, and precision clocks – all on a chip,” he said.

Such technology could allow all military systems to “keep track of their position, orientation, and time from the moment they are created with no need for updates from satellites,” Carter said.

This kind of thing already exists on smart phones, but the Pentagon needs it to be more precise before it can guide weapons. “We’ll push … the performance envelope in timing and navigation technology by harnessing Nobel Prize-winning physics research that uses lasers to cool atoms,” said Carter, a physicist himself.

DARPA, the Pentagon’s research agency, has already been exploring this area. Hyten said the technology is close to maturation, and could be usable as soon as the end of the decade.

But retrofitting the hundreds of millions of military receivers that use GPS to this new chip technology could be pricy. “That’s going to be a very hard thing to do because it will take money and all the services will have to look at their infrastructure,” Hyten said.

The Army is already looking to use this technology in some of its new vehicles, he said.

New location technologies are the sort of thing that could give the U.S. military an edge on the battlefield of the future. Finding those technologies is a top priority of Carter, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work and Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s acquisition chief. But inspiring people to think differently within DoD’s layered bureaucracy is not easy.

“I’m wanting and pulling and looking for those new ideas and trying to change the culture that is really very comfortable with the status quo right now,” Hyten said of the more than 40,000 people under his command.

Many of those people at Space Command helped establish the U.S. military as the world’s dominant armed force by creating GPS and other breakthrough programs. Now, Hyten said, the challenge is to move forward again.

“We need to get back to that sense of innovation, back to that sense of creating something new, looking at different ways of doing business [and] looking at how you do position, navigation and timing with multiple capabilities,” Hyten said.

This new tech won’t replace satellites; indeed, part of the effort includes building better orbiting navigational devices that are less susceptible to enemy interference.

“I think that GPS is going to exist and it’s going to be the gold standard,” Hyten said.

But back-up systems are needed, especially as counter-GPS technology becomes more readily available, defense officials say. A Google search will find small GPS jammers with price tags under $100.