As Cybersecurity Threat Grows, Space Is the New Frontier

September 9, 2016

By Silvestre Reyes & Mike Rogers
September 06, 2016

The recent hacking of the Democratic National Committee may have made for political drama, and even the departure of the committee’s Chairwoman, but it also raised serious concerns about foreign powers seeking to influence our elections through malicious cyber activity. The most likely suspect is Russia. During his time in power, Russian President Vladimir Putin has implemented a formidable state and state-sponsored cyber espionage and online disinformation apparatus.

But hacking is not only effective in uncovering political dirt; it could just as easily endanger Americans in a very physical sense. Consider if you were traveling on a commercial airplane, 30,000 feet above the ground, and all the sudden the captain of your flight announces that your aircraft will have to make an emergency landing because the aircraft’s Global Positioning System (GPS) has been jammed. Your flight has been compromised and your captain can no longer use modern navigational methods. The culprit for the jamming could be a country like Russia, a rogue state like North Korea, or even a terrorist organization like ISIS.

Fortunately, an aircraft’s GPS being compromised has yet to be a reality for airplanes around O’Hare Airport, or anywhere else in the U.S. However, it is not unrealistic to think that a rogue nation would use a critical but vulnerable system like GPS as a weapon or a way to intimidate the West.

Though our nation’s GPS began as classified military technology decades ago, it has since become a vital resource to the everyday American. Still operated and maintained by the Department of Defense, the system is in need of repair and modernization—more specifically cyber hardening, to ensure our enemies and criminal actors cannot intercept, infiltrate or jam the many critical functions that rely on GPS technology.

On the civilian side, GPS has almost countless functions such as helping to plot commercial shipping routes, tracking packages on Amazon, wiring money and finding the nearest Starbucks or gas station. Every time you use your smartphone to help you get directions, you are relying on GPS.

For our military, GPS is critical to security and accuracy of functions from locating enemy combatants to ensuring the accuracy of air strikes to avoid civilian casualties.

Despite how critical GPS is to the United States, we’ve known that our GPS systems have been out of date for quite some time. That’s why within the last decade the Department of Defense began overhauling and upgrading the entire system. In 2009, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report warned that our GPS system was close to a breakdown, stressing the urgent need to modernize its infrastructure.

Fortunately, a two-part fix is underway. By upgrading our nation’s GPS satellites (GPS III) and the ground systems (GPS OCX), we’re not only improving the system’s strength, longevity, and accuracy but also hardening the system against cyber attacks from foreign adversaries, terrorists, and criminal enterprises.

Unfortunately, the progress to develop and implement these complex upgrades has been increasingly delayed and costly. As former stewards of taxpayers’ dollars, that is also cause for concern. However, milestones have been made and the program is on track to be deployed by 2021. In order to keep that time schedule, it is critical the GPS upgrade has continued support from Congress.

Today, as lawmakers on Capitol Hill consider defense funding and policy decisions, the future of our GPS satellite and ground system upgrade is unclear—while the House fully supports this modernization, the Senate is calling for funding to be reevaluated based on developmental progress, or cut entirely.

While we understand reaching consensus between the House and the Senate can be challenging —nowhere is this more important than when it comes to our national defense. Failure to do so will jeopardize the safety of all Americans, put our military superiority at risk and increase the likelihood that terrorists, criminals or enemy nations will use our GPS vulnerabilities against us.

The Honorable Silvestre Reyes, a Democrat, is a consultant in El Paso and is a past chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

The Honorable Mike Rogers, a Republican, is host of the nationally syndicated Westwood One radio commentary “Something to Think About,” a CNN national security commentator, and is the past chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.