Jamming GPS: Russia targets NATO exercise

Reports have emerged claiming that the NATO exercise that recently took place in north-eastern Finland was disrupted by an attack on the military alliance's GPS signals. The satellite interference concerned operations in airspace between Kirkenese and Lyngen, a region close to the Russian border.

Similar incidents concerning the jamming of signals were also noted in Norway before and during NATO’s large-scale Trident Juncture exercise, which started on 25 October and ended on 7 November.

This week, an official in Norway’s Ministry of Defence confirmed that the disruption had been traced to Russian military forces stationed on the Kola Peninsula. For its part, Finland is planning to launch an investigation into the incident, with plans to debate the issue in Parliament.

This is not the first time that Moscow has been accused of interfering with GPS signals during military operations: in September and October 2017, problems with satellite communications over eastern Finnmark were identified as a result of jamming carried out during Russia’s own large-scale Zapad-2017 military exercise.

Russia has denied the allegations. A spokesman for President Vladimir Putin said the Kremlin “knows nothing” about the disruption of the signals. He added: “There is a tendency to blame Russia for all sins in general. As a rule, these allegations are unfounded.”

GPS is not of course only in use by military forces and agencies, even if it was originally designed for that purpose. Industries operating within the critical infrastructure sector are heavily reliant on global navigation satellite systems (GNSS), with the technology in widespread use in telecommunications, energy, transportation and financial systems. For example, global stock markets use it to track trading right down to millisecond level; ATM transactions are regulated by it; mobile phone calls are routed via telephone masts; and the emergency services also obtain data from a caller’s phone to enable a rapid response to the exact location of incidents.

However, satellite signals are not especially difficult to interfere with, and various means can be deployed to disrupt operations. Jamming, for example, is carried out via the use of radio frequency transmitters, an attack that can be leveraged by anyone who cares to obtain a suitable, easily available jammer online.

The second method of disruption involves spoofing: this is more complicated and is capable of creating fake signals and broadcasting false data.

A possible example of such an attack was seen in 2017: amid reports of GPS interference experienced by vessels operating in the Black Sea, it was suggested that Russia was behind the anomalies. Atria, a 37,000 tonne tanker, was docking at the port of Novorossiysk, but GPS readings showed the vessel to be about 25-30 miles away, close to an airport in the city of Gelendzhik. At that time, there were a further 20-25 vessels in the Black Sea, and the GPS information also showed them to be located in the same place.

Some researchers posited that this was a spoofing attack. Professor Todd Humphreys, for example, who is well-known for his work in this field, described the evidence and pictures he had seen as “quite convincing”.

He also pointed to incidents that have taken place in Moscow, where people have claimed their mapping apps have shown their current location to be at an airport when they were in fact close to the Kremlin; this has led to speculation that the Russian security agencies are using their advanced GPS-disrupting capabilities to block drones from flying in the vicinity of the complex. (link)

The ability to respond quickly and effectively to attacks on GPS signals - whether in the military, government or civil sectors - is an issue of critical importance, a point that was highlighted last January in a report published by the UK’s Government Office of Science. Cabinet Office Minister Oliver Dowden wrote: “We must take steps to increase the resilience of our critical services in the event of GNSS disruption, including by adopting potential back-up systems where necessary."

Over in Norway, Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen said the GPS jamming during NATO’s Trident Juncture exercise had come as “no surprise”, and his country’s response to such attacks is to have “alternative ways to navigate”.

Meanwhile, global research into the development of more secure GPS signalling devices continues, both to enhance resilience to possible attacks on the systems, and to advance alternative technology for obtaining the vital data required across a broad range of military or critical infrastructure sectors.