US Global Positioning Systems Under Threat; The Emerging MagNav Could Take Over The GPS Soon

OPED By: Gp Cpt TP Srivastava (Retd)

One of the biggest challenges the aviators faced was navigating accurately to reach the target; the equipment available to assist pilots in navigation in the past was a magnetic compass. With time, gyro-magnetic compasses appeared in cockpits.

The advent of the Global Positioning System (GPS) made navigating much simpler. All existing systems are satellite-based and are in use not only by pilots in the air but also by drivers on the ground.

GPS Technology And Accuracy

Without going into technical details of the system, let it be stated that all existing systems can help the pilot to navigate cruise missiles to reach the intended targets provided accurate target coordinates have been fed.

Inaccurate target coordinates will invariably result in a miss, especially for point targets. US-controlled satellite-based GPS has few operational variations viz ‘Differential’ GPS mode, which is far more accurate than universally and commonly available GPS.

Tampering GPS

Countries that have deployed such systems invariably control the system’s source code and can alter it without the world knowing about it. Likewise, these systems can be tampered with (read hacked) by adversaries. Any error in the signal of one or more system satellites will result in navigational inaccuracy.

Meeting The Challenge

The tampering of GPS is not as difficult as it was perceived to be. However, due to the soft kill nature of tampering/interfering with the systems, it becomes known after successive failures of cruise missiles failing to reach intended targets and pilots reaching incorrect target destinations. The degree of inaccuracy/error due to tampering cannot be accurately quantified.

To meet the already existing threat to satellite-based navigation systems by signal jamming, the US is already testing a new technology called MagNav.

Developers believe that the MagNav system will be tamper-proof. A mention of inertial navigation parameters is essential to understand the new system, which will be independent of satellite-assisted navigation.

Inertial Navigation System

Inertial navigation systems use basic flying parameters viz velocity and acceleration etc. These parameters fed into the system enable one to determine aircraft/weapon position at any time.

Most, instead all, aviators the world over depend on a combination of GPS and Inertial Navigation.

Thales inertial navigation system boards French Navy vessel/Representational Image
Thales inertial navigation system boards French Navy vessel/Representational Image

The advantage of an Inertial Navigation System is that this system does not depend on external signals and is jam-proof. However, there is a distinct disadvantage as well.

Due to drift caused by the Earth’s rotation, the system becomes inaccurate with time in the case of long-duration flights.

MagNav Project Of USAF

USAF is pursuing the MagNav project, jointly developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Artificial Intelligence Accelerator, a research establishment.

Top military and civilian establishments viz Air Force Institute of Technology Autonomy and Navigation Center, MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, and SandboxAQ, a software-as-a-service company, have developed the GPS independent navigation system. The system’s efficacy was demonstrated during an exercise involving large-scale air transport operations.


New technology was installed in USAF C-17 aircraft, and pilots simulated the loss of GPS signal from satellites. Yet, they could stay on the right track and reach their intended destination.

The success of the MagNav system is a landmark accomplishment because dependence on GPS will no longer be essential. Signal jamming of satellite signals could be achieved by active jammers, cyber-attacks, or even the actual physical destruction of GPS satellites by anti-satellite weapons.

Global Positioning System/Representational Image
Global Positioning System/Representational Image

However, present trials are in a nascent stage, and operational use is still some distance away in time dimension because the most critical and significant challenge to magnetic navigation is to filter out the clean signal from the noise to interpret the correct and accurate location indicated by the Earth’s magnetic field.


This significant hurdle might be crossed by Artificial Intelligence (AI) intervention. AI will be instrumental in removing aircraft electromagnetic noise and deciphering the required magnetic field depending on the latitude/longitude of the aircraft and enable position fix from the algorithms obtained in a moving plane.

Use Of Artificial Intelligence

Although the initial results of the system are encouraging, it is still a long way before aircraft cockpits are equipped with MagNav systems. The creation of accurate magnetic maps will be a tall order. MagNav must not be viewed as a replacement for a satellite-aided GPS navigation system. It will be complimentary.


Integrating MagNav systems in aircraft, submarines, drones, and hypersonic vehicles will take some time. The so-called unassailable, tamper-proof, and accurate satellite-based GPS might be replaced by a yet-to-be-operational MagNav system.

Most modern weapons, viz hypersonic anti-shipping missiles, long-range cruise missiles, weaponized drones, etc., might be neutralized by the soft kill method of tampering with satellite-based Global Positioning Systems.

An alternative system, which will ensure accurate navigation, thus enabling position fix, will become essential.

  • 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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