Spooky war over the airwaves

The control tower at Tromso Airport in Tromso, Norway, last year. GPS interference has been recorded from Scandinavia to south of the Black Sea. — ©2023 The New York Times Company

ELECTRONIC warfare in the Middle East and Ukraine is affecting air travel far from the battlefields, unnerving pilots and exposing an unintended consequence of a tactic that experts say will become more common.

Planes are losing satellite signals, flights have been diverted and pilots have received false location reports or inaccurate warnings that they were flying close to terrain, according to European Union safety regulators and an internal airline memo viewed by The New York Times.

The US Federal Aviation Administration has also warned pilots about GPS jamming in the Middle East.

Radio frequency interference – intended to disrupt the satellite signals used by rockets, drones and other weaponry – spiked after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 and has grown even more intense this fall in the Middle East.

The interference can involve jamming satellite signals by drowning them out with noise, or spoofing them – mimicking real satellite signals to trick recipients with misleading information.

The radio interference has so far not proven to be dangerous. But aircraft systems have proved largely unable to detect GPS spoofing and correct for it, according to Opsgroup, an organisation that monitors changes and risks in the aviation industry.

One Embraer jet bound for Dubai, United Arab Emirates, nearly veered into Iranian airspace in September before the pilots figured out the plane was chasing a false signal.

“We only realised there was an issue because the autopilot started turning to the left and right, so it was obvious that something was wrong,” crew members reported to Opsgroup.

Airplanes can typically fly safely without satellite signals, and large commercial aircraft have at least six alternative navigation systems, pilots said. Business jets such as Dassault Falcons, Gulfstreams and Bombardiers appear to be more susceptible to signal spoofing, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency said.

The strain on aviation could be a harbinger of far-reaching economic and security problems as the weapons of electronic warfare proliferate.

Financial markets, telecom companies, power providers, broadcasters and other industries around the world rely on satellite signals to keep accurate time. One study from Britain said that a five-day disruption of satellite signals could cost the country US$6.3bil (RM29.4bil).

Satellite signals have long been known to be susceptible to jamming and spoofing. They transmit from orbit, more than 19,000km above Earth, and are so weak that their power compares to that of a light bulb.

But many experts had dismissed spoofing attacks as too complicated and expensive for all but highly-trained experts, according to Todd Humphreys, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

Prices have fallen quickly. Today, an enthusiastic amateur with a few hundred dollars and instructions from the internet can spoof satellite signals. Governments, too, have been more willing to overtly interfere with signals as part of their electronic warfare.

Russia has disrupted GPS signals to misdirect Ukrainian drones and throw precision-guided shells off their targets. Ukraine also jams Russian receivers but lacks the same level of sophistication.

Jamming is common in conflict zones. Spoofing, until recently, was rare.

“I have never seen this level of spoofing,” said Martin Drake, a technical expert for the British Airline Pilots’ Association who recently retired after 42 years as a pilot.

The interference has been felt up to 300km away from battlefields and “appears to go well beyond simple military mission effectiveness,” according to Eurocontrol, Europe’s primary air-traffic-control manager.

The worst-affected regions include the skies above the Black Sea area from Turkey to Azerbaijan; the Mediterranean Sea extending from Cyprus to Libya; the Baltic Sea near Poland and Latvia; and the Arctic near Finland and Norway.

The increase in intensity and sophistication of such radio interference has been remarkable.

Airbus said it recorded nearly 50,000 interference events on its aircraft last year, more than four times as many as the year before.

This came on top of an over 20-fold jump in radio-interference events from 2017 to 2018, as recorded by a voluntary incident reporting system run by Eurocontrol. Eurocontrol said the increased jamming since 2018 was most likely meant to interfere with battlefield drones.

In the Middle East, Humphrey’s research team found widespread spoofing with false signals telling pilots that their aircraft were directly above the airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, when they were far away.

Opsgroup said it had received about 50 similar reports. In some cases, on board equipment showed that planes were approaching airports in Baghdad, Cairo or Beirut when they were not.

“The effects of this false signal are for the first time being seen in the last two months,” Mark Zee, the founder of Opsgroup, said from New Zealand.

The spoofing attacks, he said, have exposed a fundamental flaw in aviation electronic design, which is based on the idea that GPS signals can be trusted, and need not be verified.

That faith dates back decades. After a Korean Air Lines plane inadvertently strayed into Soviet airspace in 1983 and was shot down, the United States authorised GPS for civilian use. In 2001, the government made those signals more precise.

The world quickly became addicted to them.

The US government calls them “an invisible utility”. Smartphones, cars, stock exchanges, data centres and countless industries rely on them for time, navigation or both.

Similar systems exist around the world, such as Galileo in Europe, Glonass in Russia and Beidou in China.

Experts noticed the risk of jamming in 2012, when a ground-based signal booster failed at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. The source of the problem, it turned out, was a driver who had parked his company-issued Ford truck close to the airport and used a GPS jammer to hide his whereabouts from his employer.

Since then, truck drivers who want to work longer hours, Pokémon Go players who want to cheat and even car thieves who want to disable a car’s navigation system have used small, inexpensive jammers that have created unintended disruptions. Some signal receivers now come equipped with technology to counteract jammers.

Spoofing is harder to handle because the signal appears legitimate. Only the European navigation satellite system, Galileo, incorporates an authentication system that can provide confidence that a signal is from its satellites.

Galileo, which currently is the most accurate and precise navigation satellite system, plans to introduce an even stronger level of authentication, according to a spokesman for the European Commission.

But even Galileo’s authentication cannot protect against one of the most dreaded types of spoofing, known as “meaconing.” In a meaconing attack, a spoofer would record satellite signals, and then rebroadcast them with an amplification or a delay. Experts have not publicly confirmed any meaconing attacks in the Middle East.

Opsgroup said the latest events should prompt manufacturers to re-examine the integration of satellite signals in aircraft electronics, known as avionics, without a safeguard that can identify false signals.

“It will take some time for manufacturers to catch up,” Zee said. — ©2023 The New York Times Company

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