The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have reportedly been tampering with the GPS signals over its northern airspace as fears of an all-out war between Israel and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militant group looms.
To defend itself against Hezbollah missile strikes, Israel is scrambling GPS signals over most of its northern airspace, perhaps even putting Israeli people and commercial airliners at risk.
This is significant as it comes against escalating tensions between the two sides, with Hezbollah reportedly firing missiles and drones on targets inside Israel.
Following the surprise attack of Hamas on October 7, a group of researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, who have been monitoring GPS signals in the region for years, found an odd pattern emerging: aircraft flying near the Mediterranean Sea briefly disappeared over many parts of Israel. This was first reported by the Israeli publication Haaretz.
Experts have since noted that the pattern highly indicates the use of a technology known as “GPS spoofing,” which essentially skews the location of any GPS-enabled object, including airplanes and precision-guided missiles.
Todd Humphreys, a professor at the University of Texas, told Politico, “This is the most sustained and clear indication of spoofing I’ve ever seen” and affects potentially hundreds of large commercial airplanes.” The spoofing pattern was ironically first discovered by one of his students.
Pilots on aircraft use GPS as one of their primary navigational instruments to optimize flight paths, consume less fuel, and aid in landings, among other crucial tasks, which makes interference with GPS a very precarious situation. A September spoofing incident over Iran and Iraq nearly resulted in an unapproved business jet flight into Iranian airspace.
However, since modern-day advanced missiles also use GPS to strike their intended target, GPS spoofing also helps thwart these attacks. However, there are risks associated with that, as GPS-equipped missiles may also deviate from their intended course, making it difficult to anticipate where they would land on Israeli soil. This could increase the risk that missiles aimed at military objectives will pose to civilians.
Israel resorts to jamming the GPS system to avoid Hezbollah's precision missiles. As if Hezbollah hadn't taken that problem into account. There are always alternative and integrated systems as well. pic.twitter.com/667EN4L4Wi
— IntelSky (@Intel_Sky) October 16, 2023
Iran heavily supplies the Lebanon-based Hezbollah group with cutting-edge precision-guided missiles and UAVs that could be guided to hit specific military assets that are too strategic for Israel to compromise.
With the militant group threatening attacks in the wake of the ongoing Gaza bombing, the IDF is scrambling to avert the opening of another front in the north. Hezbollah’s sporadic attacks have raised concerns that a wider regional conflict could be imminent.
On its part, the IDF has admitted to manipulating the GPS signals as a necessary security measure. GPS has been “restricted in active combat zones by various operational needs,” as the Israel Defense Forces announced on October 15. However, the scope of the signal disruptions was not disclosed.
Hezbollah has published a video of their anti-tank missile attack on a group of Israeli soldiers today.
They fired the missile across the border wall from Lebanon pic.twitter.com/rcoefHnfZ2
— Visegrád 24 (@visegrad24) October 11, 2023
The announcement warned that in addition to expecting “temporary glitches in location-based applications” like Google Maps, the message advised citizens close to Israel’s border to remain near protective zones. Israel also announced that pilots arriving in the nation would use other onboard techniques to land their aircraft rather than relying solely on GPS.
Military analysts with expertise in the matter believe that by keeping an eye on space and intercontinental ballistic missile operations, Israel would likely be interfering with GPS to divert the missiles from their intended course and interfere with the ability of its adversaries across the border to launch ground attacks.
The researchers discovered the GPS spoofing using an open-source commercial flight tracker called ADS-B Exchange. They say that it is evident that such high levels of spoofing were not occurring before the October 7 Hamas attack, based on the data they had been tracking for the past five years. The spoofing may have been resorted to contain the Hezbollah.
There have been many skirmishes in southern Lebanon over the last two weeks between the Israeli military and Hezbollah, triggering concerns within the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) that a new front may open for them at a time when they have concentrated their efforts on bombing Gaza.
The IDF has made no bones that it eventually intends to run over the narrow enclave in a ground invasion, a part of which may have already begun.
Drawing Lessons From Russia?
Israel has been incessantly bombing the densely-populated Gaza Strip in coordinated action to destroy Hamas in retaliation to the massacre of 1,200 Israelis by the Palestinian group on October 7.
However, the bombing spree, which refuses to end, has killed over 5,000 people. Although Hezbollah has not gone all-out against Tel Aviv, the group and Iran have warned of consequences.
Israel may even be drawing lessons from Russia, whose spoofing of GPS has been extensively reported.
For instance, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) noted that more than 60% of its Unmanned Aerial Vehicle monitoring missions had experienced GPS signal interference, including in locations as close as 25 kilometers from the OSCE base’s contact line, even before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
The GPS interferences were confirmed by a commercial space corporation using radio frequency signal detection. Ukraine’s long-range UAV briefly lost control on February 23, 2022, one day before the conflict started, due to solid GPS interference.
On February 24, 2022, Russia conducted a cyberattack to deny connectivity between the Viasat communications KA-SAT network and its thousands of ground terminals. This cyberattack occurred just an hour before Russian troops attacked Ukraine that day.
More recently, Russian authorities have ramped up their GPS suppression measures following a spate of lethal drone attacks on the capital, Moscow, including on the Kremlin. Reports from the time observed that “strong” interference was observed in at least 15 regions across Russia.
Russia’s GPS Jamming and Spoofing have also been observed closer to Israel, in Syria, where the Russian troops have been fighting alongside the Syrian regime. On certain occasions, Russia’s GPS interference activities have allegedly impacted Israel’s commercial aircraft.
For instance, the Israel Airports Authority stated last month that planes landing at Ben Gurion Airport have had to take detours over West Bank settlements in recent months due to persistent GPS interference caused by unidentified forces.
“In recent months, the State of Israel has experienced non-stop GPS jamming from unknown sources, likely from outside the country,” Iris Raz, head of the environmental and engineering division of the IAA, wrote, adding that planes are often unable to land using the usual approach.
The US and other Western nations have carried out large-scale spoofing exercises in the past, but not during times of conflict. Besides Russia, Ukraine has also been fast adopting GPS spoofing practices to deter Russia. Countries like China have been using GPS spoofing recently.
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