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March 23, 2017

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First wave: Is a comeback in store for Searchlight’s radio positioning station?

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Ric Aschle

The LORAN-C station — LORAN, for LOng RAnge Navigation — for more than 30 years broadcast a powerful, low-frequency radio beacon to help planes fix their positions and find their way home.

Benefit of being close

A LORAN signal is more than a million times stronger than GPS, making it nearly impossible to jam. A land-based LORAN system could be used to complement space-based satellites.

Importance of a secure GPS

The security of the nation’s GPS system is vital because the country has come to rely on it for far more than navigation. Timing signals from the satellites also regulate ATMs, cellphone towers and power grids.

Did you know?

GPS is vulnerable to jamming because it uses weak, high-frequency signals sent from space.

At the end of an unmarked, barely passable road a few miles south of Searchlight sits a shuttered government installation. To some, it is a silent monument to a technology whose time came and went. To others, it’s symbolic of a colossally penny-wise but pound-foolish decision that put the nation’s security at risk.

The site is a former LORAN-C station — LORAN, for LOng RAnge Navigation. For more than 30 years, it broadcast a powerful, low-frequency radio beacon to help ships and planes fix their positions and find their way home.

In February of 2010, however, the Searchlight LORAN station fell silent, along with roughly two dozen similar stations throughout the country. The Obama administration figured the World War II-era technology was obsolete in an age of global-positioning satellites, and that the annual $40 million budget could be better spent.

“This system once made a lot of sense, before there were satellites to help us navigate,” Obama said in a May 2009 speech. “Now there’s GPS. And yet, year after year, this obsolete technology has continued to be funded even though it serves no governmental function and very few people are left who still actually use it.”

But the nation’s GPS system has proved vulnerable to hacking, jamming and interference from solar flares. LORAN, at least an upgraded version, is being presented as a safety net for GPS. And those behind the effort see the decision to shut down America’s LORAN sites as dangerous.

Click to enlarge photo

At the end of an unmarked, barely passable road a few miles south of Searchlight sits a shuttered government installation. The site is a former LORAN-C station — LORAN, for LOng RAnge Navigation. For more than 30 years, it broadcast a powerful, low-frequency radio beacon to help ships and planes fix their positions and find their way home.

“It was absolutely a mistake,” says Dana Goward, a retired Coast Guard captain. “It was a case of people at several levels of government not paying attention to the engineers and senior leaders, including four-star admirals; deliberately ignoring them to claim they had saved the government money when, in fact, they were endangering the nation.”

One of Goward’s final duties was to oversee closure of the LORAN stations. Now, he’s pushing to revive the system as head of the private Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation. Goward says “enhanced” LORAN, called eLORAN, could serve as a backup for GPS. Small, automated stations could be built on the former LORAN sites, allowing current infrastructure to be used.

“That would certainly be the least expensive and quickest way to make America much safer,” he says.

THE PERILS OF POSITIONING SATELLITES

The security of the nation’s GPS system is vital because the country has come to rely on it for far more than navigation. Timing signals from the satellites also regulate ATMs, cellphone towers and power grids.

“It’s a single point of failure for the entire system,” says Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “Electrical grid, financial system — everything is GPS. And there’s no backup.”

He and like-minded lawmakers have worked for years to establish a system to complement GPS, with eLORAN the favored candidate. Congress has approved several studies but still hasn’t picked a backup.

“I find that frustrating, but I’m going to keep the issue alive,” Garamendi says.

The impact of a GPS outage, whether from solar activity or action by adversaries, is hard to calculate. Some experts predict it would be a calamity.

“If GPS were to go away,” Goward says, “the economy, after a couple of days, would be in shambles.”

Goward’s foundation has issued a white paper suggesting the American economy already loses more than $5 billion a year from GPS jamming. Chinese-made jammers are illegal in the U.S. but are available on the internet, and people often buy them for personal privacy reasons.

In one high-profile example, a truck driver in New Jersey was fined $32,000 by the FCC after he was found using a jamming device to hide the movements of his GPS-tracked truck from his employer. His jammer disrupted the GPS-based landing system at Newark’s Liberty International Airport.

“A portion of a container port on the East Coast of the United States was idled for about seven hours, probably because a truck driver forgot to turn off his GPS-jamming device when he came in to pick up a container,” Goward said. “The jamming device caused the cranes to not know where they were or where the containers were. So everything just stopped for seven hours.”

The FBI has issued a warning to freight companies about organized crime groups using jammers to hijack high-value cargo, and it’s not hard to envision the dangers of an attack on GPS by rival nations or terror groups.

GPS is vulnerable to jamming because it uses weak, high-frequency signals sent from space. A LORAN signal is more than a million times stronger. And because it’s land-based, it’s an ideal complement to space-based satellites.

So, why are bureaucrats seemingly dragging their feet when it comes to establishing a GPS backup?

“I think it’s a question of the right hand not talking to the left hand,” Goward says. To use a radio analogy: Engineers, military leaders and budget analysts are not always on the same wavelength.

THE STATE OF THE STATION

In 2015, the closed LORAN station near Searchlight was looted and vandalized. Copper wire was stripped from generators and the interior of the station was trashed.

The Coast Guard sent a crew to secure the station. A federal law that took effect in 2014 ordered the Coast Guard to preserve LORAN sites and equipment for possible future use.

Whether the old Searchlight station will see new life as an automated eLORAN site is an open question. The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, signed in December by President Barack Obama, calls for a combined analysis by the departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Transportation to develop requirements for a GPS backup. That study might favor eLORAN, but not necessarily.

“Until this analysis is complete, it would be premature to identify any specific system or systems to serve as backup to GPS,” Department of Homeland Security spokesperson Gillian Christensen said.

Garamendi said eLORAN will emerge as the logical choice for a backup because it can be quickly and affordably made operational. The new network would likely use some old LORAN sites. But would the station near Searchlight be one of them?

“Where they would be located is an engineering question. Until that architecture works out, we don’t know exactly where they’ll be,” Garamendi says. He has offered a bill giving the Coast Guard primary responsibility for building a backup system and setting a timetable for completion. But when that will happen, like a radio wave, is still up in the air. “The United States has dithered on this issue for 20 years.”

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