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Researcher: Navigation systems attacks are becoming increasingly common

GPS jamming in the Baltic Sea region on February 11, 2024 (red is high, yellow medium, and green low).
GPS jamming in the Baltic Sea region on February 11, 2024 (red is high, yellow medium, and green low). Source: gpsham.org

Navigation systems jamming is becoming a common tactic to attack enemies in war and as a defense mechanism, a researcher from the Estonian Military Academy believes.

GPS system disturbances have been noticed across the Baltic Sea region in recent months and have been attributed to Russia by several experts. The interference has been located in Russia's Leningrad region, Estonia's Agency for Consumer Protection and Technical Supervision (TTJA) said in December.

Col. Eero Rebo, General Staff of the volunteer Estonian Defense League (Kaitseliit), said this is a possible defense measure by Russia against drone attacks from Ukraine.

But commercial frequencies and military frequencies are separated in satellite navigation. An engineer from a company that develops electronic systems told ERR the frequencies and equipment used by the military allow locations to be determined much more accurately than civilian equipment.

Drones are often made for commercial purposes and use civilian frequencies. To jam their control systems, it is necessary to create interference on civilian frequencies.

"Almost all commercial drones have GPS as their primary navigation system. And if you take that away, they are much harder to fly," Kaarel Piip, head researcher of the Electronic Combat Competence Center at the Estonian Military Academy, told ERR.

"Without going into details, cheaper military equipment also uses relatively civilian-like solutions," he added.

GPS jamming over Estonia on February 11, 2024. Source: gpsjam.org

Causing disturbances is also not very difficult, said Piip: "But it is not commonplace nowadays."

Attacking the enemy's navigation systems – navigation warfare – is becoming increasingly common. It has risen in connection with Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, where many countries want to test new technology, Piip said.

"In a war zone, the objective is relatively clear – if your opponent has the equipment to use these systems, you naturally want to jam it if you have the opportunity. Measures against jamming GNSS [Global Navigation Satellite System] are also used. It should be noted that jamming can also be a defensive measure used against weapon systems that use satellite navigation," he said.

There are currently four GNSS systems in use: the Americans' GPS, the Russian Ministry of Defense's GLONASS, the European Union's Galileo, and the Chinese BeiDou. Piip said it would be interesting to know if Russia's system GLONASS is also experiencing disturbances.

It is not common for the GPS signal to be intentionally disrupted during peacetime. One of the few examples is in 2018-2019 in Northern Norway, which the Norwegians blamed on Russia.

Piip said it is difficult to say for sure why GNSS signals are interfered with during peacetime. "One can only speculate whether they want to see somebody's reaction, just to inconvenience somebody's life, or something else more specific," he said.

Before the start of the war in Ukraine, there were also reports of signal interference from the Black Sea region and the Middle East. "But it used to be a rather niche activity. It has been talked about in a big way since the full-scale war in Ukraine," Piip said.  

Plane flying at high altitude (photo is illustrative). Source: Siim LõvI /ERR

Determining jammer locations is not very difficult

European authorities believe the disturbances originate from Russia.

Piip said it is possible to find their location: "This is not very difficult if the appropriate equipment is available, and should probably be done on an aerial platform in the first place."

He did not give a direct answer when asked if the disturbances originated in Russia. But said it would be rather surprising if they came from anywhere else.

"It is difficult to see any other country, especially in the Baltic Sea region, having the interest to do so now. It's probably most likely anyway that it [the disturber] is not in the West. This source is likely to disrupt more or less everything around it, so any Western country is unlikely to place such a thing on its territory," he said.

"In Western Europe, frequency management is still very, very clearly regulated, and it is generally the case that if GPS jamming is deliberately done somewhere, it is accompanied by a NOTAM," Piip added.

Erko Kulu, head of TTJA's frequency management department, told ERR the disruptions have not had an impact on aviation.

"Interference is only detectable at certain altitudes and does not affect the ability of aircraft to navigate. We have not detected any impact on satellite navigation systems on the ground and in the vicinity, nor has any such impact been reported to the TTJA," he said.

The system works better in the air than on the ground and can have more of an effect at altitude, Piip noted. In the worst-case scenario, it can also interfere with aviation, under the sea, and, theoretically, in space, he added.

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Editor: Helen Wright

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