Sunday, 25 February 2018


By David Hambling

Reports of satellite navigation problems in the Black Sea suggest that Russia may be testing a new system for spoofing GPS, New Scientist has learned. This could be the first hint of a new form of electronic warfare available to everyone from rogue nation states to petty criminals.

On 22 June, the US Maritime Administration filed a seemingly bland incident report. The master of a ship off the Russian port of Novorossiysk had discovered his GPS put him in the wrong spot – more than 32 kilometres inland, at Gelendzhik Airport.

After checking the navigation equipment was working properly, the captain contacted other nearby ships. Their AIS traces – signals from the automatic identification system used to track vessels – placed them all at the same airport. At least 20 ships were affected.

While the incident is not yet confirmed, experts think this is the first documented use of GPS misdirection – a spoofing attack that has long been warned of but never been seen in the wild.

Read more: “I’m alarmed at how much infrastructure is open to online attack”
Until now, the biggest worry for GPS has been it can be jammed by masking the GPS satellite signal with noise. While this can cause chaos, it is also easy to detect. GPS receivers sound an alarm when they lose the signal due to jamming. Spoofing is more insidious: a false signal from a ground station simply confuses a satellite receiver. “Jamming just causes the receiver to die, spoofing causes the receiver to lie,” says consultant David Last, former president of the UK’s Royal Institute of Navigation.

Todd Humphreys, of the University of Texas at Austin, has been warning of the coming danger of GPS spoofing for many years. In 2013, he showed how a superyacht with state-of-the-art navigation could be lured off-course by GPS spoofing. “The receiver’s behaviour in the Black Sea incident was much like during the controlled attacks my team conducted,” says Humphreys.

Humphreys thinks this is Russia experimenting with a new form of electronic warfare. Over the past year, GPS spoofing has been causing chaos for the receivers on phone apps in central Moscow to misbehave. The scale of the problem did not become apparent until people began trying to play Pokemon Go. The fake signal, which seems to centre on the Kremlin, relocates anyone nearby to Vnukovo Airport, 32 km away. This is probably for defensive reasons; many NATO guided bombs, missiles and drones rely on GPS navigation, and successful spoofing would make it impossible for them to hit their targets.

But now the geolocation interference is being used far away from the Kremlin. Some worry that this means that spoofing is getting easier. GPS spoofing previously required considerable technical expertise. Humphreys had to build his first spoofer from scratch in 2008, but notes that it can now be done with commercial hardware and software downloaded from the Internet.

Nor does it require much power. Satellite signals are very weak – about 20 watts from 20,000 miles away – so a one-watt transmitter on a hilltop, plane or drone is enough to spoof everything out to the horizon.

If the hardware and software are becoming more accessible, nation states soon won’t be the only ones using the technology. This is within the scope of any competent hacker. There have not yet been any authenticated reports of criminal spoofing, but it should not be difficult for criminals to use it to divert a driverless vehicle or drone delivery, or to hijack an autonomous ship. Spoofing will give everyone affected the same location, so a hijacker would just need a short-ranged system to affect one vehicle.

But Humphreys believes that spoofing by a state operator is the more serious threat. “It affects safety-of-life operations over a large area,” he says. “In congested waters with poor weather, such as the English Channel, it would likely cause great confusion, and probably collisions.”

Last says that the Black Sea incident suggests a new device capable of causing widespread disruption, for example, if used in the ongoing dispute with Ukraine. “My gut feeling is that this is a test of a system which will be used in anger at some other time.”

Thursday, 8 February 2018


There are some very interesting quotes to be found in this book. Nixon was more clever than most men. Few politicians have equaled his understanding of realpolitik nor have they had his ability to write so plainly about it. In this book he speaks obliquely about the true strategic situation facing the two super powers in the late 1980's. The books title suggests that Nixon knew in 1988 that the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact was about to fall. Using what we know here at the Area-51 blog we can see the following quotes in a unique light.

"Soviet nuclear blackmail, not nuclear war is the principal danger facing the United States and our allies in the remainder of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first." (Nixon 67)

"Even a perfect shield against ballistic missiles would not make nuclear weapons obsolete. It could not defend against nuclear warheads carried on cruise missiles, which can be launched from any Soviet aircraft, ship, or submarine and which can fly so low that radar cannot detect them. It certainly could not defend against small nuclear devices smuggled into the United States. No one who understands the issue can seriously argue that the United States -- whose borders are so porous that thousands of drug smugglers and millions of illegal immigrants cross them with little risk -- could deploy a perfect defense against the bomb in the foreseeable future." (Nixon 70)

"Aggressors embark on war when they believe they hold a significant military edge. To preserve peace, a defensive power must be strong enough to convince potential aggressors that they cannot prevail by resort to arms." (Nixon 72)

These three quotes when taken together show not only that Nixon knew of the coming fall of the Soviet Union and the reasons for it. But he also saw what the threats to the United States were going to be entering the twenty-first century. The United States had deployed a missile defense system sometime in the 1970's giving the United States in Nixon's words "a significant military edge." This led the United States to take a more aggressive actions against the Soviet Union in its Central Asian underbelly and the Soviets countered by smuggling nuclear weapons into the United States (Mitrokhin) (Lunev).

The United States then employed Muslim proxies (Afghan Arabs) to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. In the early 1990's, with the fall of the Soviet Union these proxies were then utilized in a war inside Russia in the  region of Chechnya. Nixon also saw that the Russian response would be to smuggle "tactical" nuclear weapons into the United States. The United States took steps to mitigate this danger in the late 1940's when it's intelligence operations took over narcotics smuggling (McCoy). So, Nixon was right about the threat of tactical nuclear weapons and the Russians have struck three times in the Continental United States. WTC-93, OKC-95 and 9-11 were Russian retaliatory nuclear strikes.

17 FEBRUARY 2018

An alternative would be to develop mobile land-based missiles, like the proposed Midgetman. I strongly endorsed this concept when it was endorsed by the Scowcroft Commission. I still favor it, but it now faces two major problems. First, it is unlikely that the American public and Congress will agree to allow nuclear missiles to roam over the wide areas a mobile system needs to be invulnerable. Federal Government Reserves might not be large enough to make the missiles invulnerable, and deploying these weapons on the U.S. railroad and or interstate highway system would prompt great opposition. Second, if the Soviet Union continues to develop its strategic defense capabilities, the United States needs to develop multi-warhead, not single-warhead missiles, even a moderately effective Soviet strategic defense could seriously cut down the effectiveness of an American retaliatory strike. Small, mobile missiles should be a significant part of our deterrent force, but unless the problems are solved they cannot play as big a role as we hoped when the Scowcroft Commission first made its report. 

20 February 2018
In 1987 Matthias Rust landed his small plane in Red Square. This demonstrated the vulnerability of the Russians to a cruise missile attack.

Andrew, C. and Mitrokhin, V. (2001). The sword and the shield. New York: Basic Books.
Lunev, S. and Winkler, I. (1998). Through the eyes of the enemy. Washington, DC: Regnery Pub.
McCoy, A. (n.d.). The politics of heroin.
Nixon, R. (1988). 1999 Victor without War. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Winchester, James H. "The Miracle Light Beam." Mechanix Illustrated Jan. 1963: 57+.