• DeepBlue2020 Vanguard

Navigational warfare and the battle for GPS

The Global Positioning System, or GPS, is vital for military navigation. But its inherent weaknesses are also spurring rapid innovations in navigational technology.

Part of the challenge arises from the push and pull relationship between civilian and military use of GPS, which can be found everywhere in civilian applications, from cell phones to spacecraft, for both navigation and time-keeping. This is both a blessing and a curse. The commercial developments of GPS are continually being adopted for military use, and vice versa with military improvements.

However, the fact that both sectors employ the same technology means that military users must always anticipate the vulnerabilities of commercial products and innovate to combat them.

The Navigation Warfare program, or NAVWAR, at Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) focuses on ensuring that the Canadian Forces are informed about the most secure and up to date positioning, navigation and timing technology: what are the navigation requirements and capabilities of Canadian troops, and how can they be provided with better, more robust, cheaper, lighter, more advanced, and more technologically inclusive solutions?

The NAVWAR program seeks to protect and exploit navigational capabilities through research on three fronts:

  • Electronic attack concerns the potential disruption of navigational systems. Since GPS is highly relied upon by civilians and militaries alike, the potential for damage caused by its loss can be high. The more GPS is used, the more effort there must be to understand the military utility of potential attacks. Essential to future interoperability with allies is a thorough understanding of the technology.
  • Electronic support concerns jamming detection, direction finding, and geo-location. Vehicle-mounted and handheld sensors able to detect a
  • Electronic protection concerns the augmentation of existing equipment to preserve navigational capability in challenging environments.  mart antennas, such as GAJT, that are capable of reducing or stopping the effectiveness of jammers, are one practical investment. Another is the integration of GPS with complementary technologies such as chip-scale atomic clocks and small inertial measurement units of the Micro-Electro Mechanical Systems (MEMS) type used in robotics. Such integration provides for more robust performance through sensor data fusion.

Technologies such as the latter can aid soldiers on the ground in GPS-challenged situations. A DRDC prototype called MiPN (or Minimal Personal Navigator) integrates a number of sensors located on the body of a soldier. For instance, a GPS antenna on a helmet and an inertial sensor located in a boot can provide useable navigation data to a soldier in real time when GPS is not available. Systems like MiPN will someday greatly improve the warfighter’s capabilities on the ground, and enhance commanders’ situational awareness.

Unfortunately, NAVWAR as an operational concept is not yet fully appreciated, so its use on the ground has been limited. Operators have yet to see significant jamming in the field, despite the fact that any intelligent adversary is likely well aware of our reliance on GPS.

The NAVWAR research program attempts to anticipate these potential vulnerabilities, and adapt our technology to meet future threats. New, highly jam- and spoof-resistant GPS signals are in development, and new systems similar to GPS are proliferating. There are other global navigation satellite systems that will be key players in the future: among them will be GLONASS (Russian Federation), Galileo (European Commission), and BeiDou-2 (also called COMPASS from the People’s Republic of China). The development of these systems will enhance navigation capabilities but may make the protection of warfighters more challenging, as more forces have access to equivalent technologies.

NAVWAR GPS trial.The DND and DRDC NAVWAR team is continually working toward improving the navigational capabilities of Canada’s military by identifying vulnerabilities and making use of the latest and most inventive technology. Advanced military GPS is key to these innovations, and its protection, augmentation and exploitation is vital to help Canada and its allies maintain advantage in position, navigation and timekeeping.


Lisa Levesque is a freelance writer and the editorial intern for Canadian Government Executive and Vanguard magazines.

Author: Lisa Levesque (from Apr/May 2013)

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