Russia and China play with GPS interference: it’s the new war front

Photo by Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, via LaPresse

Global Positioning System

Moscow has been training to jam the signal for years. Two ways to do it: jamming and spoofing, both cheap and insensitive. But technological competition is also played out on alliances, such as the one between Putin and Xi Jinping

Before the internet there was Arpanet, a US military project started in 1966, from which modern connections derive directly. But today’s network is not the only commonly used technology to have deep military roots: also the Global Positioning System, commonly called Gps, has a similar history (it is still owned by the US government and operated by the Space Force). Despite its widespread civilian use, GPS remains a critical infrastructure in the military and is at the center of major tampering and hacking cases right on the border between Russia and Ukraine.

To create inconvenience to this system there is no need for direct attacks on communication satellites but simple disturbing actions that can be performed from the ground. According to Erik Kannike of the Estonian military intelligence firm SensusQ, this type of operation “has spread on an unprecedented scale” in Ukraine, with network problems in “hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometers around the most strategic cities”. explained to Wired. The phenomenon has intensified in recent weeks and is aimed at hindering Ukrainian drones, which use GPS to attack targets in Russian territories.

To see it in action, just visit, a site born last July that shows the map of interference recorded by the GPS in real time, based on data from Ads-B Exchange, a company that collects and publishes information on scheduled and commercial flights. Gps Jam indicates each irregularity recorded at the service with a red square, with rather clear results: many red spots in Russia, often close to the aforementioned border, but also in Moscow; and then in Turkey, Syria and Lebanon. Most of the rest of the world, however, is a green expanse of undisturbed signal.

There are two ways to create such disturbances, explains al Sheet professor Stefano Zanero, professor of Cybersecurity at the Milan Polytechnic: jammers can be used, “which make it impossible to receive the signal in relatively small areas, such as a battlefield”; or you can perform spoofing attacks, with which “false signals are generated to deceive the enemy receiver”.

In the first case, rather small and cheap devices are used (on Amazon they can also be found for thirty euros), called jammers, capable of disturbing the frequencies used by the GSM, Wi-Fi, 3G and GPS networks, with a reduced of action. Spoofing, on the other hand, acts on a larger scale and provides for the coverage of the GPS signal coming from the satellite with a particularly strong signal made from the ground. Also in this case, these are not particularly delicate operations: a GPS radio transmitter, which can always be purchased online, is enough. Everything is made even easier by the fact that the satellite system signal is not encrypted and therefore easily disturbed.

Russia has been training in this field for a long time. Already in 2018, the magazine Foreign Policy he said the new “Gps wars” citing particular disturbances recorded near the Baltic republics in conjunction with a Russian military exercise, and then again in Norway and Finland. Another strange signal distortion phenomenon also seems to be Russian-made: since August 2020, according to some reports, at least one hundred warships from different countries have had their radar position manipulated, making them appear to systems in the most disparate places , even in strategically “hot” areas. These accidents are created by exploiting an automatic identification system, created to avoid collisions at sea, and suggest a common matrix.

The GPS war is not made up only of disturbances and corrupted signals but of real technological competition. Since 2016, the European Union has launched the Galileo system, born to integrate and cooperate with the US system, but the panorama of the Global Navigation Satellite System (the English acronym is GNSS) is increasingly populated, reproducing the alliances between superpowers within it. Like the one between the Chinese system (BeiDou) and the Russian one (Glonass), signed in February 2022 as part of the “limitless” collaboration treaty signed by the respective leaders Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin.

In this regard, Zanero argues that the very existence of BeiDou and Glonass, but also of Galileo, is due precisely to the strategic and military importance of GNSS and to the need to “be independent from a system managed by America”. In short, the geopolitical imbalance of this historical moment can also be seen from the mosaic of the different satellite communication systems.

A sector for which the war in Ukraine has acted as an accelerator of the processes that have been going on for some time, albeit on the sly. During the conflict, in fact, there was talk of GPS but also of new forms of communication such as Starlink, the satellite connection system developed by SpaceX, Elon Musk’s aerospace company, which has become crucial for the Ukrainian army. In 2020 the US military seemed to reward the model (made up of constellations of thousands of small satellites) as an anti-jamming alternative to GPS, but the practical test in the European conflict has shown that even the Starlink signal can be jammed (Musk himself admitted it last March). The basic problem remains satellite communication and the possibility of manipulating it “before it reaches its destination”, as noted by the specialized site Passwork.

Despite everything, Starlink remains an interesting technology for both civilian and military use, above all because, at least for now, it doesn’t seem to have any competitors. “However, it is critically dependent on SpaceX and Elon Musk’s personal portfolio,” concludes Zanero, “which seems to me a vulnerability more than an advantage at the moment.”

Russia and China play with GPS interference: it’s the new war front