Proposal for U.S. eLoran Service Gains Ground
Trying to revive a years-dead federal program is usually the kind of hopeless task that even Sisyphus wouldn’t touch.
But determined supporters of eLoran are gaining ground in their effort to resurrect the cancelled radio-navigation network and, propelled by new worries over GPS jamming, they appear poised push the issue through.
Loran, short for LOng RAnge Navigation, enables ships and aircraft to determine their speed and location using low-frequency signals broadcast from ground stations. The original, and now obsolete, Loran-C system was decommissioned in 2010. At one time, an enhanced system — eLoran — was expected to replace it with signals that, unlike GPS, could reach under ground, under water, and into buildings. eLoran is also far more sophisticated than Loran-C, said David Last, a British expert on positioning, navigation and timing systems (PNT)
“I draw the analogy by saying that Loran in its original form, which a lot of people remember, came from the days of black and white television,” Last told Inside GNSS. “What we’ve got here [with eLoran] is still television, it’s still Loran — but it’s digital. It’s high-definition. It’s color. It’s big screen. It’s all of those things.”
More importantly, the high-powered and nearly unjammable eLoran signals are an excellent backup to GPS signals and not subject to the vagaries of space warfare or asteroids. If something happened to GPS, eLoran could provide, relatively inexpensively, the positioning information needed for navigation and the timing data crucial to the power grid, cell phones, financial networks, and the Internet.
“eLoran is the only cost-effective backup for national needs,” wrote an Institute for Defense Analyses Independent Assessment Team (IAT) led by Brad Parkinson, the first director of the foundational GPS Joint Program Office.
“It is completely interoperable with and independent of GPS,” IDA’s team said in their 2009 report, “with different propagation and failure mechanisms, plus significantly superior robustness to radio frequency interference and jamming. It is a seamless backup, and its use will deter threats to U.S. national and economic security by disrupting (jamming) GPS reception.”
A paper by David Chadwick and Taehwan Kim show just how jam-resistant eLoran is. Their calculations in “An Evaluation of the Effectiveness of Intentional Interference to eLoran” presented at the 2006 MILCOM conference showed the system to be so robust that jammers hidden in suitcases or broadcasting from a plane or a hijacked AM radio station could not prevent the system from operating as a GPS backup for aviation.
It’s no wonder. The signal is approximately 1.3 million times more powerful than the GPS signal, said Dana Goward, president and executive director of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation (RNT) Foundation, which supports adoption of eLoran.
“The cost was so minimal and the backup was such a powerful thing . . . it just made enormous sense,” said an expert familiar with the IAT study, particularly “in terms of deterring somebody from even bothering to jam GPS.”
The IAT’s report convinced the Departments of Transportation and Homeland Security, which threw their support behind the transition to eLoran. The program was ultimately approved by the National Executive Committee for Space-Based PNT — a group co-chaired by Deputy Secretaries from DoT and DoD.
Then, after the government spent some $160 million on upgrades, eLoran was canceled. At some point in the process of preparing its first from-scratch budget, the Obama administration zeroed out the eLoran money and killed the program in 2010 — a decision widely attributed to the Office of Management and Budget.
What exactly happened is a mystery, although numerous sources describe the decision as an attempt to save money in the wake of the Great Recession.
“I think probably the true explanation, we see it in other places as well, is twofold,” said Last. “One is the tragedy of the commons — the argument that, if something is good for everybody in the village, then nobody will want to pay for it. And that certainly applied in Washington, according to everything that I saw. The other is just the whole sense that Loran is ‘that old thing’ going back a long way. It’s very difficult to take something that was known a long time ago and convince people that the current version of it is very different.”
No agency has stepped up since to support the program — perhaps with good reason. Sources suggest that the different departments are afraid to look too interested in eLoran out of fear they will be tasked with paying for the entire program from their ever-shrinking budgets.
Impact of Jamming
Last April, at a meeting organized by the U.S. Naval Observatory, the Defense Department’s Chief Information Officer Teresa Takai expressed an interest in eLoran. Takai told the audience at the “Time and Navigation, 1730-2030, from Greenwich to Space” symposium that she would like to look beyond GPS for options to improve the overall PNT capabilities for U.S. and allied warfighters.
The reason is clear, sources told Inside GNSS. The Defense Department is seeing the impact of GPS jamming overseas and is aware of how eLoran can be used to mitigate the problem.
“DoD is looking intently at what is going on in Korea,” one source said — an assessment confirmed by other experts familiar with DoD’s perspective. “The South Koreans were very intent on proceeding with eLoran, the reason being that they had actually experienced North Korean jamming of the GPS signal.”
Jamming by North Korea against its southern neighbor began in 2010. The on-going attacks have escalated to the point that they affected more than 1,000 ships and 250 planes over a 12-month period, according to a paper given in April at the European Navigation Conference (ENC) in Vienna, Austria. The paper’s statistics were presented by Jiwon Seo, an assistant professor in the School of Integrated Technology at Korea’s Yonsei University and Mincheol Kim, a deputy director of the Maritime Safety Facilities Division in the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries.
The two announced that South Korea planned to add three new eLoran stations and update two old Loran-C facilities to provide eLoran services with a better than 20-meter accuracy throughout the country by the end of 2014. It would also deploy 43 differential eLoran stations for a service to be operation by 2018. With the cooperation of Russia and China, they said, South Korean hopes to expand its eLoran system to cover all of Northeast Asia.
Other countries are taking up eLoran as well. India is planning a system of its own and Russia and Great Britain are working together to make eLoran interoperable with Chayka, the Russian version of the technology. Their goal is to use the compatible signals to improve navigation along hazardous sea routes in the Arctic, according press reports and a presentation the Internavigation Research and Technical Centre in the Russian Federation.
The Netherlands announced in December that it had installed a differential version of eLoran in the port of Rotterdam that used signals from stations in France, Germany and England. The system, which achieves accuracies of less than 5 meters, was developed in part to address the risk of disruption to satellite navigation signals.
Saudi Arabia announced plans some time ago to upgrade its Loran-C system to e-Loran and Iran announced last year that it had a new terrestrial positioning system, though little is know about it. The U.K., easily the most active of the eLoran countries, has been broadcasting eLoran signals 24/7 for nearly three years, said Last.
“About a year ago we introduced it in the Dover Straits,” Last told Inside GNSS. “That’s the part of the English Channel that is the world’s busiest maritime choke point. We get something like 500 ships a day coming through it — and ferries dashing back and forth across it. The whole area is a bit of a nightmare and, of course, it can be very foggy as well.”
Most of the ships traversing the Straits are “almost totally reliant on GPS for their navigation,” he said “and the gap that they are coming through is narrow enough that you could take out the whole of the shipping activity there — take out the GPS activity — using a fairly low-cost jammer on cliff top on either the British or the French side.”
“We took the technology from the U.S. when they dropped the ball, and we spent about three years on it,” Last said. “The outcome of that is that we have turned what was a feasibility study being done by people like the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and developed that into something that we now have a lot of faith in.”
Great Britain is poised to take it one step further. The U.K. announced plans last summer to install seven differential eLoran stations along its South and East Coasts. The differential service is to be operational by this summer.
eLoran in the States?
The military could use commercial equipment to support their activities, they said, and would not need to expend substantial resources on developing new defense-unique equipment or install receivers in every truck and tank. Given the amount of eLoran activity overseas, such equipment should be readily available, the source suggested.
“There would be interest in eLoran equipment if there was a move to regenerate the eLoran infrastructure, starting I am sure with the suppliers overseas who are getting ready to support Korea and the (other eLoran countries), said another expert who has been following the issue. “It would happen here if the infrastructure were regenerated.”
eLoran supporters are hoping that even limited use of eLoran by the Pentagon will spark commercial interest and, eventually, participation by DoT and DHS. For example, if DoD were to develop a well-recognized signal specification, it would go a long way toward spurring the introduction of commercial eLoran-capable receivers. The money is there in the DoD budget to do these things, argued one source, in part because the amounts needed are so small.
That little bit of spending could make a big difference, though, by proving the practicality of the system, they said.
“You kind of have to coax the civil community,” said the source, who is familiar with the long-running debate over eLoran. The key to getting DoT and DHS onboard, they said, is the “ability to demonstrate it is not a budget buster.”
Private Sector Steps Up
In November Goward, who as director for Marine Transportation Systems for the Coast Guard served as the United States’ maritime navigation authority for the United States, announced the formation of the RNT Foundation.
The group is proposing that the United States adopt eLoran and is suggesting that a public-private partnership could be established to provide the funding.
“We have had some positive responses to our proposal for a public-private partnership from the Department of Defense and the Department of Transportation,” said Goward, “and, so, we expect to be talking with them in the next couple of weeks. We’ll see where that goes.”
The proposal is similar to one submitted last year by UrsaNav, which is currently doing research at a number of the old Loran-C sites under a cooperative research and development agreement or CRADA with DHS. UrsaNav is a supporter of the RNT Foundation.
“We would want (the government) to contribute the existing infrastructure. ‘As is’ is fine,” Goward said. “And then, depending on the business model that they chose, they could either contribute a certain amount a year or a certain amount up front.”
If the federal government is going to get a direct benefit back from the system, he added, “we would hope they would contribute a little bit to the restoration of the system. If not, I suppose we would raise the funds ourselves and set it up as a purely fee-for-service business. There is a whole spectrum of possibility on how this could be funded.”
Sources confirmed that DoD officials were scheduled to have a preliminary meeting with Foundation representatives in January. The DoT said it had already been involved in meetings.
“The U.S. Department of Transportation and the other agencies have held preliminary discussions and are planning future high-level talks on GPS backup generally,” DoT said in a prepared statement, “but we don’t have a schedule of future talks at this time. USDOT’s role will continue to be to provide input on GPS requirements from the civil sector.”
Sources said that DoD reached out to the DHS in a letter sent as part of setting up the initial meetings. Goward believes DHS will participate in the discussion, although Inside GNSS was unable to confirm that. DHS, which is often described as being responsible for finding a backup for GPS, did not respond to requests for comment.
Congress Turns Up the Heat
The House Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee, chaired by Rep Duncan Hunter, R-California, has scheduled a February 4 hearing headlined “Finding Your Way: The Future of Federal Aids to Navigation.” A congressional staffer told Inside GNSS that eLoran may be one of the topics discussed. Indeed, although the full list of speakers was not public as of press time, Goward confirmed that he would be testifying.
Another topic that may come up is the negative findings in a GAO report on GPS vulnerability requested by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas. The three have been following the eLoran issue and asked the Government Accountability Office to examine the risks and potential effects of GPS disruptions. GAO was also tasked with assessing whether DHS and DoT were living up to their responsibility to find mitigations for system problems and develop a backup for GPS.
The report, released last November, faulted DoT and DHS for their “limited progress” — progress hampered, in part, by a disagreement over which agency is responsible for developing a GPS backup system. If that is not enough to inspire action, the U.S. House and Senate have ordered the secretary of defense and the director of national intelligence to work with the National Research Council to study and determine options for responding to “near-term and long-term threats to the national security space systems of the United States.”
The mandate, which was imbedded in the National Defense Authorization Act for 2014 and signed into law at the end of December, gives them until the end of this year to recommend actions to counter the threats including, as an option, building in systemic resilience in some way.
They must describe, as part of the country’s Space Protection Strategy, how the two departments will provide “necessary national security capabilities — through alternative space, airborne, or ground systems — if a foreign actor degrades, denies access to, or destroys United States national security space capabilities” — a clear opportunity to address the need for a backup to GPS.
Dismantling of Loran Stations Continues
The Coast Guard continues to dismantle the old sites, taking down antennas and removing the ground equipment. Two towers were dismantled in December and another is scheduled to be taken down by the end of March, according to the Coast Guard.
Saving the existing sites is essential said Chuck Schue, who follows the developments closely as president and chief executive officer of UrsaNav, a provider of eLoran technology and services. The old sites can be put to use quickly to broadcast signals that could spark development of new receivers and help encourage the market for the service — which could ultimately save the federal government money.
The more the government dismantles the old sites the more it will cost to launch eLoran and the longer it will take, he said.
Dismantling the sites also prolongs the period during which American will be have only one source for timing and navigation data, said Goward. “We should not have so much depending on one source.”
eLoran supporters hope that DoD will ask the Coast Guard, which became part of the Department of Homeland Security after 9/11, to stop taking down the sites until a decision on eLoran can be made.
Although Schue said he believes DHS is participating in the talks, he thinks that officials representing the agency are not from the same part of DHS as the Coast Guard — possibly making it difficult to coordinate on saving the sites.
“It appears that one hand does not know what the other is doing.”
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