GPS Spoofing Emerges ‘Biggest Threat’ To Global Civil Aviation; 50+ Cases Reported In Middle East

OPED By Gp Cpt TP Srivastava (Retd)

Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) was one of the most potent weapons instrumental in Germany’s defeat during the 2nd World War. British successfully decoded the communication code used for directing U-boats.

Instead of making it public, the British opted to maintain secrecy and continued to intercept messages transmitted and meant for German U-boats and targeted them successfully. This single event altered the sea war in the Atlantic.

21st Century Warfare

Unguided rockets and bombs delivered from various platforms during the 2nd world War, causing extensive damage and creating huge noise, have been replaced by ‘smart’ and ‘intelligent’ weapons capable of searching/seeking/destroying the assigned target/s.

Technology has enabled the production of massive aircraft carriers, flying machines for virtually all missions, as well as massive armored vehicles/guns.

All nations, without exception, are spending billions of Dollars to equip their militaries. According to SIPRI, worldwide defense expenditure in 2021 was USD 2.1 Trillion. In 2021, the USA, the no 1 economy in the world, had a GDP of USD 23 Trillion.

The development of new platforms involves huge investments and also cannot be kept a secret from other nations, adversaries in particular. Hence, major powers viz China, Russia, and USA are trying to not only cut down on platform development costs but also exploring the possibility of developing ‘silent weapons’ at much lower cost and total secrecy.

Controlling, interfering, and deceiving the electromagnetic spectrum is garnering much greater attention than ever before. Jamming of adversary EM spectrum has been the most used silent weapon over the last six decades.

However, the process of jamming has a few major disadvantages, both operationally as well as technologically. These are;

  • A jammer indicates its presence to the adversary when attempting to interfere with the signal.
  • Most advanced operational jamming equipment in use currently is capable of transmitting inadequate power to be capable of detecting/jamming a radar signal from, say, 150 km away. Jammers have to close into the intended transmitter, thus increasing the vulnerability of the platform carrying jamming equipment/pods, etc.
  • Jammers cannot deceive a transmitter; they can merely interfere, which also can be neutralized by increasing the power of ground-based transmitters, thus succeeding in creating a ‘burn through range’ and still spotting/tracking the hostile jammer.
  • Jamming can be accomplished in a narrow cone only.

Latest Advances

Due to the limitations of jamming as listed above, manufacturers are looking into the domain of deceiving the EM spectrum called ‘Spoofing.’

Operational trials have already established that power requirements for spoofing are much lower than jamming. Also, spoofing can be done simultaneously over a large area by radiating signals on desired frequencies.

The biggest advantage of spoofing over jamming is that affected equipment/platform will never realize that external interference is being resorted to.

For instance, a platform following GPS guidance and commands to follow a particular track will never know that the GPS signal has been corrupted by an adversary by interfering with merely one of the satellite signals in the constellation. Thereby succeeding in deceiving the system and making it believe that it is still on the correct track when, in fact, it is deviating from the intended track.

As an example, did Korean Air Lines (KAL) Flight 007 veer away from the intended track due to pilot error or signal interference in the GPS system, which led the flight to enter a sensitive Russian area and be shot down, killing 269 passengers? This happened on 01 September 1983.

On 3rd July 1988, an Iranian airliner was shot down by a SAM (surface-to-air missile) fired from USS Vincennes. This flight, too, was shot down either due to misidentification or the flight deviating from its intended track, probably due to spoofing.

No one will ever know the truth. But the fact remains that a few hundred innocent passengers lost their lives.

Deployment of Silent Weapon

The use of explosive weapons is resorted to during war and/or terrorist attacks. But silent weapons can and will affect ordinary civilians sooner than later in peacetime.

Instead of complicating the issue by quoting high-end technical data and terms and elaborating on the capability of silent weapons, it would suffice to quote specific areas that will/can be affected.

Spoofing can be used during peacetime to interrupt/interfere with routine operations, viz thousands of airliners flying around the globe at any given time. Communication and/or navigation systems can be hacked into and feed incorrect information.

A few examples are:

  • So far, only the GPS has been considered to be vulnerable, but even more serious is the capability of silent weapons interfering with the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast system extensively used in aviation for providing pilots with their position and enabling the ground controllers to know about the actual position of the aircraft. Interference with the ADS-B terminal will result in erroneous information about the actual position and may result in mid-air collision, making an approach on the wrong runway, etc.
  • Every airliner uses an Aircraft Communication and Reporting System (ACARS). Thousands of airliners in the sky use it for updates, alterations in flight plans, etc. The silent weapon can send wrong instructions to the pilot. The pilot is merely required to click the ‘accept’ button, and the flight might divert/deviate to the new route and fly over a sensitive military area, and we might have another KAL 007. Incidentally, the pilot has no way of knowing that ACARS has been broken into.
  • The onboard avionics of an airplane can also be interfered with. An app called ’Electronic Flight Bag’ can interfere with onboard computing systems and deliberately project false information to the pilot about flight parameters, viz airspeed, altitude, etc., which might result in a crash.
  • Similar interference can be done with military aircraft as well. It is yet to be proven if operationally smart weapons could also be interfered with.
  • The day may not be too far when an SSM/MRBM/ICBM launched by an adversary could be made to alter its course and head for the nation that launched it. Technology and fiction are no longer a matter of possibility. For instance, deepfake technology and digital puppets are a reality.
Electronic Warfare EW
File Image: Electronic Warfare EW by Leonardo

Spoofing Instead of Jamming

Original signals from GPS, ACARS, etc, can be fed with the intended signal, which will cause small errors in navigation/flight computer and may not be realized by the pilot. However, the false data created will take the aircraft off track or report the wrong position.

In fact, unconfirmed reports of a successful spoofing attack on a US Air Force drone by Iran made it land in an Iranian airfield in 2011. An airliner, too, might end up in an enemy territory/hostile/sensitive airspace.

It could even direct a pilot to continue on approach in adverse weather conditions of extremely poor visibility and crash into a nearby hill feature.

Building A Spoofing Device

Jamming involves swamping the transmitted signals, thereby creating poor radar pick-up or other electronic interferences. Spoofing, on the other hand, involves creating fake and/or incorrect signals.

The victim is unable to comprehend that it is being spoofed. GPS spoofing devices are extremely easy to assemble using open-source information available on the internet.

Recent Chinese claims about inventing and producing operational spoofing devices, which can do any or all of the above-listed interferences with airplanes, smart weapons, and virtually everything that uses electronic signals.

Hackers worldwide have proven their capability by breaking formidable firewalls of the US defense establishment. Can spoofing be used to interfere with the banking and railway system? The list is endless!

As of date, the most vulnerable platforms are airliners, which can be spoofed by a technologically alive terrorist organization and/or a hostile nation. Military, too, will have to evolve procedures/tactics to identify the signal interference. Identifying jammers is far simpler than identifying spoofing.

Meanwhile, there have been over 50 instances of horrifying cyberattacks that have modified planes’ in-flight GPS, leading to “critical navigation failures.” Since August, they have been observed throughout the Middle East, including Israel, Egypt, and Iraq, according to a New York Post report.

  • Gp Cpt TP Srivastava (Retd) is an ex-NDA who flew MiG-21 and 29. He is a qualified flying instructor. He commanded the MiG-21 squadron. He is a directing staff at DSSC Wellington and chief instructor at the College of Air Warfare. VIEWS PERSONAL OF THE AUTHOR
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