Key Point: Russia is using the Middle East as a testing ground for how it can interfere with American electronics.
Russian forces have been jamming GPS systems in the Middle East. The electronic-warfare campaign could affect U.S. forces gathering in the region in advance of potential strikes on Iran.
“Since last spring, pilots flying through the Middle East, specifically around Syria, have noted that their GPS systems have displayed the wrong location or stopped working entirely,” The Times of Israel reported in late June 2019.
The signal that has been disrupting satellite navigation for planes flying through Israeli airspace in recent weeks originates inside a Russian air base inside Syria, according to data collected by a U.S.-based researcher.
This interference to the Global Positioning System reception does not appear to be specifically directed at Israel, but rather the Jewish state is likely collateral damage in an effort by Moscow both to protect its troops from drone attacks and to assert its dominance in the field of electronic warfare, Todd Humphreys, a professor at the University of Texas, told The Times of Israel.
Israeli sources “are increasingly convinced” that three weeks of GPS disruptions for civilian flights are a side effect of Russian jamming and spoofing in Syria, Breaking Defense reported. “Moscow is trying to interfere with both Western airplanes — including cutting-edge stealthy F-22s and F-35s — and improvised terrorist drones.”
The U.S. Air Force starting in April 2019 has deployed F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, respectively, as part of a wider build-up of forces as Washington clashes with Tehran following U.S. president Donald Trump’s decision unilaterally to withdraw the United States from the agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program.
Now, the situation is rife with rumor, with the Israeli government avoiding any official statement and still investigating other sources. But if Russia is indeed disrupting a friendly nation’s GPS by accident, why haven’t they stopped?
The answer may lie in the limits of Russian electronic warfare, which — while far more potent than U.S. military [electronic warfare] — still relies on raw power more than precise targeting.
The International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations and Israeli Airports Authority in late June 2019 announced that many flights lost the GPS satellite signal while flying into or out of Ben Gurion International in Israel, Breaking Defense reported. There has been no risk to passengers, according to the IAA. The affected aircraft simply switched to backup systems.
“Intriguingly, ground-based GPS systems are unaffected,” Breaking Defense noted. “That makes the jamming of aviation GPS suspiciously specific — another sign that it’s not a simple glitch but some kind of electronic weapon. And the Russians have invested heavily in high-powered spoofing systems that send out false GPS signals up to 500 times stronger than the real ones, leading civilian navigators miles astray.”
Russia also has disrupted GPS in Europe.
“Scrambled GPS signals were first detected during NATO’s large-scale Trident Juncture exercises in Norway at the end of October ,” Defense News reported.
“Norway’s defense intelligence agency said it tracked the source of the signal-jamming to a Russian military base on the nearby, heavily fortified Kola Peninsula. Finland’s military intelligence said Norway’s analysis mirrors its own investigations and evaluations."
In late 2018 Finland and Norway both lodged complaints with Russia over the disruptions. “Defense and civil aviation chiefs in Finland and Norway warned that the GPS jamming posed a serious risk to both military and commercial aircraft using the affected airspace in the High North,” Defense News noted.
“Russia asked (us) to give proof. We gave them the proof,” Norwegian defense minister Frank Bakke-Jensen told Arctic Today. The proof consisted of measurements showing signals had been jammed.
“Russia said, ‘Thank you, we will come back when our experts review that,’” Bakke-Jensen said. “To have such an answer from Russia is a positive thing,” he said.
Bakke-Jensen implied the jamming was intentional. “They were exercising very close to the border and they knew this will affect areas on the other side,” Bakke-Jensen said of the Russians.
The U.S Army is planning to test jam-resistant GPS systems in Europe as a potential step toward countering Russian electronic warfare.
The Army’s 2nd Cavalry Regiment in Germany should get the new jam-resistant GPS by the end of 2019.
David Axe serves as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels War Fix, War Is Boring and Machete Squad. This first appeared in July 2019 and is being republished due to reader's interest.