GPS Jamming: When Russian Fighter Jet Shot Down ‘007 Aircraft’ Due To Navigational Error, Killing 269 People

British airliners have been caught in the crossfire of suspected Russian jamming, leading to thousands of disruptions and raising concerns about aviation safety. Military experts say this could even lead to the shootdown of civilian airliners, as the world witnessed in 1983.

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British Media outlet The Sun reported that since last August, over 2,300 Ryanair flights and nearly 1,400 Wizz Air flights have encountered incidents of GPS interference. 

British Airways, Jet2, TUI Airways, and easyJet also experienced similar incidents, with British Airways reporting 82, Jet2 reporting seven, TUI Airways seven, and easyJet four incidents. 

The scale of the problem becomes even more pronounced in the broader European context. Over the Baltic Sea alone, approximately 46,000 aircraft logged issues with GPS during the same timeframe, according to data analyzed by the Sun in collaboration with 

GPS forms a crucial component of an aircraft’s navigation system, and any interference poses a potential safety risk. 

The seriousness of the situation was underscored in March when the UK government confirmed that an RAF plane transporting the defense secretary Grant Shapps experienced GPS signal jamming while flying near Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave in the Baltic region.  

The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) sought to downplay concerns, emphasizing that GPS jamming was often associated with military activity and did not necessarily imply direct targeting of commercial planes.

Glenn Bradley, Head of Flight Operations at the CAA, stated, “Aviation is one of the safest forms of air travel, and there are several safety protocols in place to protect navigation systems on commercial aircraft.”

“GPS jamming does not directly impact the navigation of an aircraft, and while it is a known issue, this does not mean an aircraft has been jammed deliberately,” Bradley added.

Meanwhile, responding to queries, spokespersons from Ryanair and easyJet reiterated the resilience of their aircraft to GPS interference. 

Ryanair emphasized the presence of multiple systems to identify aircraft locations, while easyJet underscored the existence of backup navigation systems and operational procedures to mitigate GPS-related issues.

GPS Spoofing Poses Massive Threat To Civil Aviation

In January, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) convened a summit with global airline representatives to address the growing threat posed by these malicious activities. Europe’s air safety watchdog characterized jamming and spoofing as “attacks” but did not attribute responsibility for them. 

Luc Tytgat, head of EASA, emphasized the seriousness of the situation, highlighting a significant increase in such attacks that endanger flight safety. The essence of these attacks lies in their ability to disrupt and distort GPS signals, vital for guiding aircraft accurately. 

One technique employed is jamming, which involves overpowering authentic signals from satellite systems like GPS and Europe’s Galileo, rendering them unusable. 

Meanwhile, spoofing deceives aircraft by transmitting false signals, misleading them about their actual location. The source of these attacks has not been explicitly identified, but suspicions have been raised regarding Russian involvement. 

The British media report revealed a startling escalation in suspected Russian attacks, skyrocketing from under 50 incidents weekly last year to over 350 per week recently. One industry insider denounced the information provided by Russia as “spurious” and alarmingly perilous.

Figure 4: GPS spoofing of UAV: an illustration.

An expert based in the United Kingdom, cited in the report, remarked that Russia had a history of employing GPS jamming as a means of “harassment,” extending its effects across NATO boundaries. 

“Wherever there is a large Russian garrison, you are seeing GPS denial, and there is one in Kaliningrad. They just have that stuff switched on because there are standing orders,” he added. 

However, these GPS disturbances are not limited to Europe alone. Recent months have witnessed incidents in various regions marked by geopolitical tensions.

In late August 2023, pilots navigating the skies of the Middle East reported instances where their onboard navigation systems were compromised by falsified GPS signals, occasionally leading to misguidance of hundreds of miles. 

This disruption resulted in a “total loss of navigational capability,” forcing some flight crews to depend solely on verbal instructions from air traffic controllers, as reported by OpsGroup, an organization representing pilots and flight dispatchers. Aircraft of varying sizes, from small business jets to large Boeing 777s, were affected.

The incidents were reported within a corridor of Iraqi airspace adjacent to the border with Iran, frequently used by flights between Europe and the Gulf states. 

OpsGroup documented an incident where a business jet pilot en route to Dubai experienced a hazardous deviation into Iranian airspace without authorization due to the malfunctioning navigation system. 

Following the commencement of the conflict in Gaza in October 2023, reports of spoofing surged across the region, with experts suggesting a probable attempt by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to counter potential drone and missile threats from the Iran-backed militia group Hezbollah. 

Perils Of GPS Spoofing

The jamming of GPS signals is a frequent occurrence, particularly in regions of conflict and near sensitive military installations, where it serves as a defense against potential drone or missile strikes. 

While the jamming of GPS signals is a known phenomenon, experts caution that spoofing — where false signals are broadcast to deceive aircraft navigation systems — presents a far more insidious threat.

Spoofing incidents involve the transmission of counterfeit GPS signals, leading an aircraft’s electronic systems to calculate incorrect positions and provide misguided guidance. Unlike jamming, where signals are simply disrupted, spoofing actively deceives navigation equipment, potentially leading to severe consequences.

In an article for the EurAsian Times, retired group captain TP Srivastava highlighted the subtlety of spoofing attacks, noting that they can introduce small errors into navigation systems that may initially go unnoticed by pilots. 

However, these false signals can lead an aircraft off course or provide inaccurate positional data, endangering both the aircraft and its occupants. “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,” he added.

Srivastava further highlighted that an airliner could inadvertently stray into enemy territory, including areas considered sensitive, such as military or nuclear facilities.

In such scenarios, the affected country might feel compelled to take defensive measures, potentially leading to the interception or even the shooting down of the aircraft. 

When Su-15 Shot Down Civilian Airliner

Historical incidents, such as the tragic fate of a Korean Air Lines flight in 1983, starkly illustrate the potential danger posed to commercial aircraft by straying into enemy territory. While GPS spoofing was not a factor in this particular case, navigational equipment issues played a crucial role in diverting the aircraft from its intended path.

Demonstrators near the White House protest the Soviet shoot-down of KAL 007 (September 2, 1983)

On August 31, 1983, passengers boarded a Korean Air Lines flight bound for Seoul, South Korea, at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. After a stop in Anchorage, Alaska, for crew change and refueling, the plane encountered radio and navigational equipment issues during the North American leg of the journey.

Upon takeoff from Anchorage, Air Traffic Control instructed the aircraft to follow a specific route over Bethel, Alaska, and proceed along the northernmost North Pacific route between Alaska and Japan, which would keep it outside Soviet airspace.

However, shortly after departure, the flight began deviating from its assigned route, veering northward for over five hours. 

Unaware of its deviation from the intended course, Flight 007 entered Soviet airspace, prompting the scrambling of four MiG-23 fighters, a staple of the Soviet military fleet at the time, to intercept what they perceived as an unidentified aircraft.

A significant radar outage on the Kamchatka Peninsula, caused by high winds ten days earlier, delayed the fighters’ visual confirmation of Flight 007’s presence. Consequently, the aircraft crossed over the Kamchatka Peninsula and re-entered international airspace over the Sea of Okhotsk before interception could occur.

A Soviet Sukhoi Su-15 interceptor

However, upon its departure from Soviet airspace, Soviet authorities erroneously concluded that Flight 007 was a foreign reconnaissance aircraft and a military target. Subsequently, when Flight 007 re-entered Soviet airspace over Sakhalin Island, three Su-15 fighters were dispatched to intercept the aircraft, still under the presumption of its military nature.

Despite the absence of official confirmation regarding the aircraft’s civilian or military status, the decision to shoot it down was made to prevent its departure from Soviet airspace for a second time.

The lead Su-15 fighter positioned itself and launched two K-8 air-to-air missiles at Flight 007, causing it to continue flying for another 12 miles before tragically crashing into the sea off Sakhalin Island, resulting in the loss of all 269 passengers and crew aboard.