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Securing reliable satellite navigation in the Middle East

US Navy sailors surrendering to their Iranian IRGC captors in January 2016. Video still courtesy of Al-Alam TV.
US Navy sailors surrendering to their Iranian IRGC captors in January 2016. Video still courtesy of Al-Alam TV.

It is difficult to overstate the critical importance of satellite navigation for the Middle East, yet the service is vulnerable to disruption. ThorGroup’s Dr. John B. Sheldon examines the threats to satellite navigation in the region, and ways to mitigate their worst effects.

When Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) seized two US Navy boats making their way from Kuwait to Bahrain in January 2016 it was not only an embarrassing moment for the US military, it may also have been an example of the IRGC spoofing the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite navigation signals on the vessels that would have made them inadvertently enter Iranian waters.

The commander of the US Navy’s riverine unit that was captured by the Iranians was reassigned earlier last week, suggesting that the incident was the result of failed command, but there is an ongoing internal US Navy debate with one argument claiming that the American sailors were duped into Iranian waters by IRGC spoofing of the GPS signals they relied upon for navigating the waters of the Arabian Gulf.

Within the space community, satellite navigation does not garner the same attention and popularity as space exploration, but it is almost impossible to overstate its importance to the functioning of modern societies and their economies and militaries. Satellite systems such as the US GPS constellation, Russia’s GLONASS, and China’s BeiDou all provide positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) signals to users throughout the Middle East. Europe’s Galileo satellite navigation system, as well as India’s regional NAVIC system, will also become available to users in the near future.

Everything from navigation for land, maritime, and air transportation through to the functioning of cellular telephone systems, banking, and the Internet, as well as a myriad of military applications, all rely upon the PNT signals provided by these Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) to users around the world.


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