The scrambled GPS system in the Eastern Mediterranean? An issue of maritime safety and strategic autonomy

Since the beginning of the year, in the East of the Mediterranean, many ships have been confronted with sudden failures of their GPS [1], impacting their activity but especially their safety. Located around the Suez Canal and in an area from eastern Cyprus to the Lebanese coast, these failures, taken very seriously, were the subject of urgent notices to mariners issued by the US Maritime Administration (MARAD [2]) and NATO Allied Maritime Command (MARCOM [3]).

An investigation is still ongoing to find out the reasons for these malfunctions. The track most often evoked is that of a GPS jammer [4] carried out by a State or a private actor [5]. In this region of the world undermined by major geopolitical instability and major military operations [6], these actions would seem attributable to states at war.

A strong dependence of the maritime world on GPS technology

In busy maritime areas, particularly in the Mediterranean where traffic is dense, maritime transport must be able to rely on safe navigation. However, it is highly dependent on the GPS positioning system [7]. Many navigational aids, such as ECDIS [8], integrate this data to calculate the position of the ship, and even give orders directly to the autopilot. Even if, as a general rule, human intervention makes it possible to circumvent these malfunctions, an erroneous GPS position weakens the safety of navigation.

Navigation accuracy, key capability of naval air operations

Even if the military [9] uses an encrypted GPS frequency which is considered to be safer, the dependence on the system is even more strategic for naval air forces, whether for their relative positioning or the implementation of their weapon system [10] .

To lure the enemy or the adversary or to deprive him of this function thus becomes a mode of military action. In 2015, a British frigate, believing to be on the high seas according to the data of her lured GPS, actually sailed in the territorial waters of China and was called to order by the Chinese fighter jet. Hacking the GPS signal can therefore trigger a diplomatic incident.

The autonomy of navigation at the heart of strategic independence

Real strategic independence therefore requires total control of the navigation system. This is why major powers such as the United States, Russia and China already have their own autonomous system and that the European Union will have the Galileo system by 2020 [11]. More precise [12] and more resistant to jamming, this system will be complementary to the GPS system.

Proof, if needed, that these issues related to the integrity of positioning systems are essential for the strategic autonomy of a country and the freedom of maneuver of its armed forces, particularly at sea. United are also working on a new generation GPS with a better encryption system and an anti-jam feature.

In the future, this navigation autonomy will become even more crucial with the emergence of autonomous vessels. Will remote supervision be able to diagnose a lure or a positioning error in time? These future projects give an increased strategic dimension to the control of the digitization of the systems, in particular the security of the data of positioning in the face of the jamming.