Electronic warfare in the Middle East and Ukraine is affecting air travel far from battlefields, unsettling pilots and exposing the unintended consequences of a tactic that experts say will become more common.
Planes are losing satellite signals, flights have been rerouted and pilots are receiving false position reports or inaccurate warnings that they are flying close to terrain, according to EU safety regulators and an internal airline memo seen by The New York Times. Pilots are also warned to be aware of GPS interference in the Middle East.
Radio frequency jamming—designed to interfere with satellite signals used by rockets, drones, and other weapons— Surge after Russian invasion The disruption broke out in Ukraine in early 2022 and became more severe in the Middle East this fall. This interference may include jamming satellite signals by flooding them with noise, or spoofing satellite signals – imitating real satellite signals and deceiving receivers with misleading information.
To date, radio interference has not proven to be dangerous. But aircraft systems have proven largely unable to detect GPS spoofing and correct for it, according to Opsgroup, an organization that monitors changes and risks in the aviation industry. An Embraer jet bound for Dubai in September nearly flew into Iranian airspace before the pilot discovered the plane was tracking a false signal.
“We just realized something was wrong because the autopilot started turning left and right, so obviously something was wrong,” the crew member reported to Opsgroup.
Pilots say planes can generally fly safely without satellite signals, and large commercial aircraft have at least six alternative navigation systems. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency said business jets such as Dassault Falcon, Gulfstream and Bombardier appear to be more susceptible to signal spoofing.
As electronic warfare weapons proliferate, the pressure on the aviation industry could foreshadow far-reaching economic and security problems. Financial markets, telecommunications companies, electricity providers, broadcasters and other industries around the world rely on satellite signals to keep accurate time.one Study in UK It said a five-day outage of satellite signals could cost the country $6.3 billion.
Satellite signals have long been known to be susceptible to interference and spoofing. They are transmitted from orbit more than 12,000 miles above Earth and are so weak that they have the power of a light bulb.
But Todd Humphreys, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, said many experts believe spoofing attacks are too complex and expensive for all but the most well-trained experts.
Prices fell rapidly. Today, an enthusiastic amateur can spoof satellite signals with just a few hundred dollars and instructions on the Internet. Governments are also more willing to openly jam signals as part of electronic warfare.
“What has changed over the past few years is that deception has moved from research articles and theories in the laboratory to actual events in the wild,” Professor Humphreys said.
It is not always possible to distinguish interference from deception, or to determine who is behind interference.Israel explain In mid-October, Israel restricted GPS in the area and warned pilots not to rely on satellite navigation systems for landings. The Israel Defense Forces did not respond to questions.
Russian interference is well documented. 2019 report A report by C4ADS, a nonprofit analysis group based in Washington, shows widespread deception at Russian-controlled Syrian air bases. The report also noted that when Russian President Vladimir V. Putin traveled to remote areas or Russian-occupied Crimea, he was flanked by mobile GPS spoofing technology.
Russia has GPS signal outage Misleading Ukrainian drones and dropping them Precisely guide artillery shells away from target.Ukraine also jams Russian receivers but lacks the same level of complexity.
Interference is common in conflict zones. Until recently, deception was rare.
“I have never seen this level of deception,” said Martin Drake, a technical expert with the British Airline Pilots Association who recently retired after 42 years as a pilot.
Eurocontrol, Europe’s main air traffic control regulator, said the interference could be felt up to 190 miles from the battlefield and “appeared to extend well beyond simple military mission effectiveness.” The worst-affected areas include those over the Black Sea. The area from Turkey to Azerbaijan; the Mediterranean Sea from Cyprus to Libya; the Baltic Sea near Poland and Latvia; and the Arctic near Finland and Norway.
Increased intensity and complexity This kind of radio interference Airbus said it recorded nearly 50,000 disruptions on its planes last year, more than four times that number Same as the previous yearOne agency recorded a more than 20-fold increase in radio interference incidents from 2017 to 2018. Voluntary Incident Notification System Operated by Eurocontrol. The European air safety group (Eurocontrol) said the increased interference since 2018 was likely aimed at disrupting battlefield drones.
In the Middle East, Professor Humphrey’s research team Uncover widespread deception The error signal told the pilots that their plane was directly over Tel Aviv Airport while they were far away. Opsgroup said it had received about 50 similar reports. In some cases, airborne equipment showed the planes were approaching Baghdad, Cairo or other airports in Beirut, Lebanon, when they were not present.
“The impact of this false signal first became apparent in the past two months,” Opsgroup founder Mark Zee said in New Zealand.
He said the spoofing attack exposed a fundamental flaw in avionics design, which is based on the idea that GPS signals can be trusted without verification.
This belief goes back decades. In 1983, the United States authorized GPS for civilian use after a Korean Air plane inadvertently entered Soviet airspace and was shot down. In 2001, the government improved the accuracy of these signals.
The world quickly became addicted to them.
The U.S. government calls them “invisible utilities.” Smartphones, cars, stock exchanges, data centers, and countless industries rely on them for time, navigation, or both. Similar systems exist around the world, such as the European Galileo system, the Russian GLONASS system, and the Russian GLONASS system. Beidou is in China.
When a ground-based signal booster failed in 2012 at Newark Liberty International Airport, experts noted the risk of congestion. It turned out that the root of the problem was a driver who parked a company-issued Ford truck near an airport and used a GPS jammer to conceal his whereabouts from his employer.
Since then, truck drivers who want to work longer, Pokémon Go players who want to cheat, and even car thieves who want to disable their car’s navigation system have used small, cheap jammers that cause unexpected interference. Some signal receivers are now equipped with technology to counter jammers.
Deception is processed because the signal occurs. Only the European navigation satellite system Galileo uses an authentication system that ensures signals are coming from its legitimate satellites. Galileo is currently the most accurate and precise navigation satellite system and plans to introduce more stringent certification levels, a spokesman for the European Commission said.
But even Galileo’s authentication doesn’t protect against one of the most terrifying types of deception, known as “meaconing.” In a meaconing attack, a spoofer records satellite signals and then rebroadcasts them by amplifying or delaying them. Experts have not publicly confirmed any malicious attacks in the Middle East.
Opsgroup said the latest incident should prompt manufacturers to re-examine the integration of satellite signals into aircraft electronics, known as avionics, as there are no safeguards to identify false signals.
“It will take some time for manufacturers to catch up,” Mr. Qi said.