Reading between the Lines: GPS & 2010 National Space Policy

A new National Space Policy announced this week (June 28, 2010) by the White House appears to do more than elevate GPS in the pantheon of U.S. space programs.

The five paragraphs on space-based positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) systems prominently enshrine the U.S. GNSS system in the 18-page document: GPS is the only program called out by name in the policy’s section on “Foundational Activities and Capabilities.”

A new National Space Policy announced this week (June 28, 2010) by the White House appears to do more than elevate GPS in the pantheon of U.S. space programs.

The five paragraphs on space-based positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) systems prominently enshrine the U.S. GNSS system in the 18-page document: GPS is the only program called out by name in the policy’s section on “Foundational Activities and Capabilities.”

But those five paragraphs carry a set of nuance and subtext that connote stylistic, if not substantive differences in the current administration’s perspective from the status quo ante. What is left unsaid in those paragraphs is nearly as significant as what is said.

Inevitably, by simplifying the policy statement on PNT into a few overarching principles, the administration has also clarified those elements that it finds most crucial among the six goals, seven objectives, and innumerable departmental directives found in the nearly six-year-old — and still official — guidance.

Perhaps most obviously, the new policy reflects a conscious effort to soften the combative and unilateralist tone of the December 2004 National Security Policy Directive 39 (NSPD-39) on space-based PNT.  When the Bush  policy was rolled out without much fanfare or explanation, some readers — especially foreign observers — understood the document as effectively re-militarizing the GPS system, with the directive’s emphasis on security, U.S. supremacy, and independence.

The 2010 statement also emphasizes the commercial and civil aspects of space-based PNT. In 2004, the White House asserted as its primary goal the provision of uninterrupted access “for U.S. and allied national security systems and capabilities through the Global Positioning System, without being dependent on foreign positioning, navigation, and timing services.” The 2010 policy only mentions — almost in passing — the need to also satisfy “national security needs,” while civil applications receive numerous references.

The new policy underlines the international orientation of the current administration, including the directive that “foreign positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) services may be used to augment and strengthen the resiliency of GPS.” The 2004 policy statement, in addition to underlining an independent U.S. PNT capability, emphasized the desire to encourage other nations to make their systems compatible with GPS.

And, finally, the policy statement points to a long-standing and critical piece of unfinished business: the need for a strategy and practical implementation of measures to forestall and deal with attacks on GPS service in the national territory.

The United States shall, the 2010 policy states, “Invest in domestic capabilities and support international activities to detect, mitigate, and increase resiliency to harmful interference to GPS, and identify and implement, as necessary and appropriate, redundant and back-up systems or approaches for critical infrastructure, key resources, and mission-essential functions.”

Unspoken, but well understood is the fact that a lengthy charge to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in NSPD-39 to ensure the continuity of domestic PNT service in the event of a widespread GPS outage remains unfulfilled nearly six years later.

The 2004 mandate included an assessment of potential threats to PNT, the ability to detect and locate intentional or unintentional interference sources, a means to respond to such situations, and development a back-up system in the case that domestic GPS service was disrupted or, in an extreme scenario, shut down by U.S. authorities to prevent its use by hostile forces.

DHS drafted a nominal PNT Interference Detection and Mitigation (IDM) Plan some time ago that represented little more than recitation of current procedures for detecting and responding to interruptions in wireless communications and wrapping GPS into these.

But the initiative to deny hostile use or mitigate its effect if it occurs remains underfunded, and the new statement of policy seems ambivalent about where such a need exists. DHS is currently going through another round of “assessing” the needs of individual agencies for a GPS backup.

The failure to resolve this issue brings to mind the failure of industry and government to visualize and prepare for a catastrophe on the scale of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and resulting oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

As a 2008 National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee (NSTAC) Report to the President on Commercial Communications Reliance on the Global Positioning System (GPS) noted, “to date, no industry or Government exercise has sought to replicate the impact of a long-term or permanent GPS outage simultaneously on all industries.”

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