Global conflicts highlight the vulnerabilites of GPS for sailors with the potential to affect position fixing, collision avoidance, distress signalling and more

Russia is suspected of launching a 63-hour-long attack on GPS signals in the Baltic region, starting on 31 March 2024, Easter Sunday, in a move that affected more than 1,600 passenger planes as well as yachtsmen

The incident, which saw at least 1,614 planes affected, occurred amid rising tensions between Russia and the NATO military alliance more than two years since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

While most of the GPS attacks appeared to be taking place in Polish airspace, Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) blogs have reported that planes flying in German, Danish, Swedish, Latvian and Lithuanian airspace have suffered interference problems.

The missing or fake GPS signals — known as GPS jamming — have been occurring regularly since the start of the war in Ukraine.

Were similar GPS blackouts to occur in coastal areas, it could mean that yachtsmen lose their primary source of position fixing as well as the loss of accurate AIS data for collision avoidance, the loss of some input data for autopilots as well as a loss of GPS functionality for distress signalling, whether via VHF DSC or via GMDSS satellites such as EPIRB, PLB or AIS beacons.

In 2013, Trinity House, the charity dedicated to safeguarding shipping and seafarers, launched a backup system to GPS in the Dover Strait, allowing ships to use eLoran radio navigation technology as a backup to satnav systems like GPS and Galileo.

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The ground based eLoran system provides alternative position and timing signals for improved navigational safety. The Dover area is the world’s busiest shipping lane.

Newsweek reported that the pattern of the 63-hour GPS interference suggested it originated from Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania. Russian forces stationed there are thought to possess equipment capable of disrupting global navigation satellite systems (GNSS), such as GPS or other constellations, such as the European Galileo system. Russia has it’s own GLONASS system.

An RAF plane carrying Defence Secretary Grant Shapps had its GPS signal jammed while flying close to Kaliningrad in March. The plane was travelling between the UK and Poland when its satellite signal was temporarily interfered with on both legs of the journey.

The apparent technological prowess showcased by these interruptions has raised alarms in military circles. Melanie Garson, an expert in international security from University College London, highlighted to the edge that Russia seems to hold in electronic warfare.

‘“The mother of invention over the last two years during the war have actually actively solidified their capabilities in this regard. They’ve had the chance to use it more concretely, and there’s a real concern that particularly NATO currently doesn’t match that capability,’” she said.

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