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Navigating Space Warfare: Military's Shift from GPS to Analog Solutions

In a world increasingly reliant on digital technology, the potential disruption of satellite communications by enemy forces during a conflict poses a significant threat to military operations. Governments and defense forces worldwide are preparing for scenarios where they might need to revert to analog navigation methods, such as using sextants to navigate by the stars, a skill that seems archaic in the digital age but might become crucial in space warfare.

Professor Dale Stephens from the University of Adelaide highlights the vulnerability of the global positioning system (GPS) in modern warfare. In the event of satellite communications being compromised, the digital infrastructure we depend on for navigation, timing, and communication would be severely hampered. The Australian Defence Force (ADF), recognizing this risk, has initiated training programs that include celestial navigation. These programs teach personnel to construct sun compasses, identify celestial bodies, and estimate direction, time, distance, and position without relying on digital tools.

This shift is not unique to Australia. The U.S. Navy, after abandoning celestial navigation in 2006, reinstated it in 2016 due to concerns over overreliance on GPS. Similarly, the UK Royal Navy ensures that its ships are equipped with nautical almanacs for emergency celestial navigation. These measures reflect a broader understanding that alternative navigation techniques are essential to maintain operational readiness in the face of potential satellite disruptions.

The Legal Framework of Space Warfare

The Woomera Manual on the International Law of Military Space Activities and Operations, co-edited by Stephens, addresses the complex legalities of military activities in space. This comprehensive guide, developed over five years with contributions from global experts, outlines the laws governing actions such as the use of anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons. These laws aim to regulate military conduct in space, covering direct ascent missiles, co-orbital ASATs, high-energy weapons, jamming, and cyber-attacks.

A significant focus of the manual is the legal status of satellites, which exist in a gray area of international law. Instances of ASAT technology being tested or used by countries like China, and the U.S. underscore the need for clear regulations.

Earlier, Russia allegedly disrupted the Starlink satellite internet service, which Ukrainian soldiers rely on for communication, drone control, and intelligence gathering. Last year, France accused Russia of maneuvering one of its satellites close to a French satellite to intercept information. China has showcased its capability to "grapple" a satellite and remove it from orbit. The U.S. has issued warnings that both China and Russia are frequently targeting American satellites.

Challenges and Alternatives to GPS

The Department of Defense (DoD) is acutely aware of the increasing ability of adversaries to disrupt GPS signals. Weak and easily jammed, GPS RF signals are vulnerable to both jamming and spoofing, leading to potentially catastrophic navigational errors. The Pentagon and military services are actively seeking alternatives, recognizing that no single solution can replace GPS.

Experts emphasize a multifaceted approach to positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) capabilities. Alternatives fall into six broad categories:

  1. RF Signals: Utilizing signals from other satellite constellations like Europe's Galileo or China's Beidou, as well as signals from cell and radio towers, although these are equally susceptible to jamming.
  2. Inertial Navigation Systems (INS): Devices that use gravity for navigation, though they suffer from drift and require periodic correction.
  3. Magnetic Navigation (Mag-Nav): Using Earth's magnetic field signatures recorded in rocks, this method is robust and unjamable but requires comprehensive data collection.
  4. Celestial Navigation: Leveraging stars and planets, or even space debris, for navigation, though it is limited by weather conditions and battlefield smoke.
  5. Visual Navigation: Using landmarks and maps, hindered by visibility issues.
  6. Elevation and Bathymetry: Techniques involving radar or sonar to measure distance above land or sea, which can expose the user's position.

Each method presents unique advantages and challenges, necessitating a tailored approach based on the mission and platform requirements.

As the military prepares for the inevitable challenges of space warfare, the transition from a GPS-dependent system to a diversified, analog-inclusive approach becomes crucial. This strategic shift not only enhances resilience against satellite disruptions but also underscores the importance of a holistic and adaptive strategy in modern defense operations. The intricate balance of integrating these alternative methods will be pivotal in maintaining the effectiveness and security of military missions in an increasingly contested and technologically complex space environment.

Author: Nessa, Cyber Journalist

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/europe

Photo: Pexels/Lumina Obscura

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