On September 1, 1983, Korean Airlines Flight 007 accidentally strayed into the Soviet Union’s airspace and was shot down by a Soviet Su-15 Interceptor, falling into the Sea of Japan and killing 269 passengers and crew, including about two dozen children and U.S. Congressman Larry McDonald. Ridiculously, the Soviets initially denied it, but later claimed the commercial airplane flew into prohibited airspace on a spy mission. Of course, evidence, including the recording between the Soviet pilots and the ground, proved otherwise. The commercial airplane became a causality of the Cold War.
While nothing good can come directly from such a tragedy, there was an indirect opportunity to minimize this sort of pilot error from reoccurring. In that same year, President Ronald Reagan signed an executive order allowing commercial and civilian use of the government’s evolving Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) network. That decision allowed commercial airlines from all over the world to have “free use” of the satellite network for accurate navigation. The U.S. Air Force has the responsibility for the system and its upgrades.
Over a few decades, the airline tragedy led to a decision to allow commercial access to GPS spawned entrepreneurs to create businesses and applications that improved consumer safety, saved consumers time and billions of dollars, and permitted businesses to operate more efficiently and at lower costs. Today, there is a wide host of commercial uses for GPS. These uses go far beyond airline safety, including maps and directions, social media applications, restaurant and store finders, the bourgeoning sharing economy (e.g., Uber and Lyft), access to the atomic clock, ship and boat navigation, guiding driverless cars, and delivery and tracking of consumer goods – all while giving the U.S. military necessary and strategic capabilities.
However, that GPS network could soon fail, and with it all of its relevant applications for businesses and individual consumers. It is incumbent on Congress to approve and fund much-needed updates to our GPS system in order to protect our economy and our citizens from malicious attacks that could cripple our security apparatus and ability to operate.
We are seeing an unprecedented number of highly sophisticated cybersecurity threats on our government, private businesses and individuals today. The existing GPS network was not built for the level of attacks we are now experiencing, much less the threats of the future. Four years ago, North Korea allegedly jammed the GPS signals and forced 252 commercial airplanes to turn off their navigation devices. The potential for interference from other nations – Iran, China and Russia – or their surrogates could pose a major threat to our national defense. Beyond debilitating the capability of our military, many of the commercial services we now take for granted could be rendered useless, including major web applications, sharing economy services and navigation.
This threat and its solution have been long recognized. There have been planned upgrades to the air and ground uses, known as GPS III and OCX, respectively. Besides critical software and integration, the plan requires a fleet of new satellites to replace some aging craft and augments the new ground system’s superior technical capabilities. When complete, the proposed upgrades would cyber-harden the system from disruptions and hacking, and it would the double accuracy for military and commercial use for applications in the air and ground.
While the solution to secure GPS for all Americans is in progress, Congress may bring that progress to a screeching halt. As Congress considers the budget, funding to this vital GPS upgrade is on the chopping block. While it’s likely Congress is concerned with the program’s rising costs and developmental delay, the upgrade is on sound footing to be complete in the next two years. While the growing cost should give policymakers reason to pause, not upgrading the network will lead to considerably more costs and disruption for consumers, as well as undermine our national security. The goal of upgrading the GPS system should not be in question.
The next time you check into Pinterest, track a purchase on Amazon, monitor your steps on your smartphone, get directions to your doctor, check pump prices on GasBuddy or push OnStar for an emergency, just remember how important GPS is to the economy and how investment in this network produces massive returns to consumers, businesses and the government. Moving forward with securing and improving our GPS system is critical to consumers, American jobs and nation.