May 22, 2009

Air Force Counters Claims That GPS System Is In Danger

The U.S. Air Force has recently attempted to allay fears that the space-based Global Positioning System (GPS) that helps guides millions of car navigation systems is going to crash.

Initial concerns were raised during a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that the GPS system, which is also used heavily by the U.S. military, could be running into some serious disruptions due to a shortage of orbiting satellites.

"It is uncertain whether the Air Force will be able to acquire new satellites in time to maintain current GPS service without interruption," read the GAO report.

"If not, some military operations and some civilian users could be adversely affected," the report warned ominously.

At the moment, there are 31 active GPS satellites circling the Earth at a height of some 12,600 miles "” of which a minimum of 24 are required to accurately provide GPS users with their exact location.

In the next five years, the United States government has promised to invest more than 5.8 billion dollars in GPS space- and ground-based technology.  The GAO report warned, however, that a number of the satellites currently orbiting the planet could reach the end of their operational life span before the Air Force has time to replace them with new units.

According to the report, if the Air Force's plans to put two new satellites into orbit in the coming year fail to materialize or are delayed, then GPS users, both military and civilian, could begin to experience disruptions in service as early as next year.

"Such a gap in capability could have wide-ranging impacts on all GPS users, though there are measures the Air Force and others can take to plan for and minimize these impacts," read the report.

In swift response to the report, authorities at the Air Force Space Command reassured the public on Wednesday that the GPS system is in no danger being disrupted.

Spokesman for the Air Force Space Command Colonel Dave Buckman "twittered" his comments to the public.

"No, GPS will not go down," Buckman wrote through the hi-tech microblogging service.  "GPS isn't falling out of the sky."

Buckman did not, however, deny the "potential risk associated with a degradation in GPS performance" as expressed in the GAO report, but reassured that the Air Force Space Command has "plans to mitigate risk and prevent a gap in coverage."

"We have 30+ satellites on orbit now.  We'll launch another in Aug 09, and again early 10 (2010).  Going below 24 won't happen," he explained.

Lt. Col. Tim Lewallen, deputy director of GPS at Air Force Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base in corroborated Buckman's assessment and added that the $30 billion GPS system had never been larger and more accurate than it is right now.

Besides its well-known function of guiding modern drivers from point A to point B, GPS is utilized in a vast variety of other technologies.  Most new smartphones such as Blackberries and iPhones come equipped with GPS, and the technology is also used in the aviation and maritime industries, mass transit systems, electrical power grids and communications networks.

The U.S. military also uses encrypted versions of GPS signals to coordinate troop movements, communicate with high command and perform search and rescue operations.  The system is also used to guide the so-called "smart bombs" made that became well known during the Iraq War.

The GAO report specifically warned that a compromised GPS system could potentially impact the accuracy and effectiveness of future military strikes.

"The accuracy of precision-guided munitions that rely upon GPS to strike their targets could decrease [and] the risks of collateral damage could also increase."

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