Electronic warfare in the Middle East and Ukraine is affecting air travel far from battlefields, disrupting pilots and revealing the unintended consequences of a tactic that experts say will become increasingly common.
Planes are losing satellite signals, flights have been diverted and pilots have received false location reports or inaccurate warnings that they were flying near terrain, according to European Union safety regulators and an internal memo of the airline consulted by the New York Times. The Federal Aviation Administration also warned pilots about GPS jamming in the Middle East.
Radio interference — intended to disrupt satellite signals used by rockets, drones and other weapons — peaked after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 and became even more intense this fall in Middle -East. Interference can involve jamming satellite signals by drowning them in noise or spoofing them – imitating real satellite signals to fool recipients with misleading information.
Radio interference has not proven to be dangerous so far. But aircraft systems have proven largely incapable of detecting GPS spoofing and correcting it, according to Opsgroup, an organization that monitors changes and risks in the aviation industry. An Embraer plane bound for Dubai nearly veered into Iranian airspace in September before pilots realized the plane was chasing a false signal.
“We only realized there was a problem because the autopilot started turning left and right, so it was obvious something was wrong,” crew members reported at Opsgroup.
Planes can generally fly safely without satellite signals, and large commercial planes 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 pressure on aviation could be a harbinger of wide-ranging economic and security problems as electronic warfare weapons proliferate. Financial markets, telecommunications companies, electricity providers, broadcasters and other industries around the world rely on satellite signals to get accurate time. A British study indicates that a five-day interruption of satellite signals could cost the country $6.3 billion.
It has long been known that satellite signals are susceptible to jamming and spoofing. They transmit from orbit, more than 20,000 kilometers above Earth, and are so weak that their power is comparable to that of a light bulb.
But many experts have dismissed spoofing attacks as too complicated and costly for all but highly trained experts, according to Todd Humphreys, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.
Prices fell quickly. Today, an enthusiastic hobbyist with a few hundred dollars and instructions from the Internet can spoof satellite signals. Governments are also more willing to openly interfere with signals as part of their electronic warfare.
“What has changed in the last two years is that spoofing has gone from being a theory in research papers and in labs to actually happening in the wild,” said Professor Humphreys.
It is not always possible to distinguish jamming from spoofing, or to determine who is causing the interference. Israel said in mid-October it had restricted GPS in the region and warned pilots not to rely on satellite navigation systems for landing. The Israel Defense Forces did not respond to questions.
Russian interference is well documented. A 2019 report from the Washington-based nonprofit analysis group C4ADS showed large-scale spoofing originating from a Russian-controlled air base in Syria. The report also states that when Russian President Vladimir V. Putin traveled to remote locations or Russian-occupied Crimea, he was accompanied by GPS mobile spoofing technology.
Russia disrupted GPS signals to hijack Ukrainian drones and launch precision-guided shells off their targets. Ukraine also jams Russian receivers, but does not have the same level of sophistication.
Jamming is common in conflict zones. Identity theft, until recently, was rare.
“I’ve never seen this level of identity theft,” said Martin Drake, a technical expert with the British Airline Pilots’ Association, who recently retired after 42 years as a pilot.
The interference was felt up to 300 kilometers from the battlefields and “appears to go well beyond the simple effectiveness of military missions”, according to Eurocontrol, the main manager of air traffic control in Europe. The most affected regions include the skies over the Black Sea area from Turkey to Azerbaijan; the Mediterranean Sea stretching from Cyprus to Libya; the Baltic Sea, near Poland and Latvia; and the Arctic near Finland and Norway.
The increase in the intensity and sophistication of this radio interference is remarkable. Airbus said it recorded nearly 50,000 interference events on its planes last year, more than four times as many as the year before. This comes on top of a more than twenty-fold increase in radio interference events between 2017 and 2018, as recorded by a voluntary incident reporting system managed by Eurocontrol. Eurocontrol said the increased jamming since 2018 was most likely aimed at interfering with battlefield drones.
In the Middle East, Professor Humphrey’s research team discovered widespread spoofing consisting of false signals telling pilots that their plane was directly over Tel Aviv airport when they were were far away. Opsgroup said it had received around 50 similar reports. In some cases, onboard equipment showed the planes were approaching airports in Baghdad, Cairo or Beirut, Lebanon, when this was not the case.
“The effects of this false signal are visible for the first time in the last two months,” Mark Zee, founder of Opsgroup, said from New Zealand.
The spoofing attacks, he said, exposed a fundamental flaw in aviation electronics design, based on the idea that GPS signals can be trusted and do not need be verified.
This faith goes back decades. After a Korean Air Lines plane inadvertently strayed into Soviet airspace in 1983 and was shot down, the United States authorized the use of GPS for civilian purposes. In 2001, the government made these signals more precise.
The world quickly became addicted to it.
The U.S. government calls them “an invisible public service.” Smartphones, cars, stock markets, data centers, and countless industries depend on it for weather, navigation, or both. Similar systems exist around the world, such as Galileo in Europe, Glonass in Russia and Beidou in China.
Experts first noticed the potential for jamming in 2012, when a ground-based signal booster failed at Newark Liberty International Airport. It turned out that the source of the problem was a driver who had parked his company-provided Ford truck near the airport and used a GPS jammer to hide his location from his employer.
Since then, truck drivers wanting to work longer hours, Pokémon Go players wanting to cheat, and even car thieves wanting to disable a car’s navigation system have used small, inexpensive jammers that have created unintended disruptions. Some signal receivers are now equipped with technology to counter jammers.
Identity theft is more difficult to deal with because the signal appears legitimate. Only the European satellite navigation system, Galileo, includes an authentication system that can guarantee that a signal comes from its satellites. Galileo, currently the most accurate and accurate satellite navigation system, plans to introduce an even higher level of authentication, according to a European Commission spokesperson.
But even Galileo authentication can’t protect against one of the most feared types of identity theft, known as “meaconing.” In a snooping attack, a spoofer would record satellite signals and then rebroadcast them with amplification or delay. Experts have not publicly confirmed any malicious attacks in the Middle East.
Opsgroup said the latest events should prompt manufacturers to reexamine the integration of satellite signals into aircraft electronics, known as avionics, without protection to identify false signals.
“It will take some time for manufacturers to catch up,” Mr Zee said.