Blog  •  28 Jul 2021  •  4 min read

The risks to satellite navigation

Today an interesting article was published on BBC news, trying to answer the question: “what happens to British ships if satellite signals fail?”.

It states, “In 2015, the French and Norwegian governments decided to cease their eLoran transmissions, meaning navigation via radio alone has since become impossible in northern Europe.

They have been superseded by Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) such as the American GPS system and European Galileo system.

The above article is sounding the alarm because such GNSS systems can be jammed or spoofed. Having no radio-location back-up is a potential detriment to the Royal Navy and our merchant ships, the article is stating that, “in 2019, the Stena Impero, a British-flagged ship, was probably lured by Iran into its waters using spoofed satellite data”.

We know that many other systems that now depend on GNSS for their primary mode of operation, therefore any loss of this vital capability would have a wide-ranging impact.

Fragile systems

There are other threats, beyond Jamming and Spoofing, that can deny access to key resources; one of them is geo-politics. The American GPS system was originally designed so that in times of crisis the signal could be turned off or severely degraded for users other than the US military. This is partly why the Europeans developed their parallel Galileo system and why the UK briefly explored their own British GNSS system when the politics of staying within the Europe’s Galileo system became too difficult.

As we have found out over the last few years, a set of challenges such as pandemics, labour shortages, national and organisational hording, industrial action, factory fires, company bankruptcy, natural disasters, environmental policy, and even individual ships blocking the Suez Canal can all have detrimental effects on supply lines, including the flow of people and knowledge.

We have entered a new era where the word “Resilience” has found a new prominence in many people’s minds.

Challenges ahead

This presents a specific challenge for the UK.  Although we are still one of the world’s biggest spenders on defence, resilience costs money, and we have finite resources. Decisions need to be made between more ships or fewer ships with better defensive systems. Radio-location beacons need to be geographically placed that can by only achieved by international collaboration in a world of shifting allegiances. Burden-sharing across alliances is financially attractive but must be balanced against the risk that future conflicts are reduced to “Coalitions of the Willing” which some traditional allies may choose not to support. How does the UK navigate through these metaphorical choppy waters?

There is no “one-size fits all” solution, but Systems Thinking is critical to managing this risk. Thinking through the development and operational life of a system and the system-of-systems it is part of, identifying the challenges, and mitigating those challenges as best one can. All within Time, Cost and Quality, and the many other aspects that must be traded-off. This needs broad experience because, as we have seen, things that can seem set in stone for decades can be turned upside down within days or weeks. “Events, dear boy, events” as Prime Minister Harold MacMillan allegedly said.

Bringing forth the compass

Two areas that Optima Systems Consultancy routinely gets involved in are “Technology Watch” (looking at technology trends for up to 40 years ahead such advanced magnetic field navigation) and so-called “Freedom of Action and Operational Sovereignty” assessment. That phrase is about whether you can maintain access to everything you need to develop, verify, operate, and maintain the systems you are procuring, across the Defence Lines of Development (DLOD).  It is a key area we think about when performing Technology Watch. These programmes are critical for innovation and to bring forth solutions so the ship’s officers don’t have to fall back on watching the stars.

For more information on Technology Watch, Freedom of Action and Operational Sovereignty get in touch with us.

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