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MoD boffins in Cornwall GPS-jamming trials

Could be spoofing satnav, not just jamming

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UK gov defence boffins will carry out GPS-jamming trials in Cornwall today and tomorrow.

Jamming transmissions will be made at the Portreath MoD site, a remote radar station operated by the RAF's Air Surveillance and Control Systems Force Command. The old airfield was once used (low down on page) as an outstation of the former Chemical Defence Establishment, headquartered at Porton Down.

Ministry of Defence (MoD) scientific operations are nowadays consolidated under the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), and it's these boffins who will carry out the tests this week.

According to a BBC report, effects on GPS receivers can be expected up to 11km from Portreath, which would include the local towns Camborne and Redruth. Apparently, local emergency and rescue services have been warned, and arrangements are in place to cancel the trials if necessary.

When contacted by the Reg, however, DSTL was quick to downplay the local impact, saying effects would be limited to the airfield itself and that every effort had been made to minimise impact on local GPS coverage. Trials have already been carried out at Sennybridge Training Area in Wales, according to DSTL, and more are planned for Lincolnshire (3 and 4 July and 31 August) and Buchan, Scotland (17 August).

"The tests will not have an effect on mobile phones or telecommunications devices and all local services including aircraft and marine users have been made aware," according to an MoD release.

"The trials will start on 7 June and will continue until 8 June at the very latest. They will take place for up to eight hours a day – from 0900 hours until 17.00 BST."

Details of the trials were "restricted", but the government spokesperson was able to reveal that the trials were intended to research "vulnerabilities in a range of military applications" of satellite navigation.

Apparently, the tests will involve "setting up transmitters near equipment in order to discover the effects". DSTL was unwilling to confirm which equipment might be investigated (UK forces use GPS in a wide range of kit, including various guided weapons and drones as well as more ordinary navigational apps). However, the boffins' media contact did confirm that "this is a military trial".

The use of the term "vulnerabilities" might imply more subtle attacks than merely preventing military receivers in missiles, aircraft, or whatever from functioning. Quite apart from simply jamming GPS, it's also possible to spoof it - to transmit synthesised satellite signals which blot out the real ones and cause a nearby GPS receiver to give a false location of the spoofer's choice (more info here for those interested).

Disappointingly, DSTL's spokesperson at MoD PR denied they were experimenting with any such techniques - for all that it seems an obvious thing for tech-savvy enemies to attempt. The MoD also implied that it had no interest in meddling with adversaries' satnav, only in protecting that used by UK forces.

However, the Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) safety warning issued to cover the trials conflicts with the press information. It reads:

"GPS SIGNAL JAMMING TRIALS. JAMMER LOCATED WITHIN 0.5 [nautical miles] OF 5016N 00516W (PORTREATH, CORNWALL). ACTIVITY MAY AFFECT AIRCRAFT WITHIN 6NM RADIUS FLYING BELOW FL300 [30,000 feet] ... DURING TRIAL PERIODS, GPS RECEIVERS MAY SUFFER INTERMITTENT/TOTAL FAILURE, OR GIVE INCORRECT POSITION INFO ..."

Which suggests that the Beeb's 11km radius of effect is actually correct - and further, that spoofing tests may indeed be on the agenda, which restores some faith in the competence of UK defence boffinry.

That seems a lot more believable to the Reg military-matters desk. Any satnav-using readers near Portreath who notice interesting effects over the next couple of days can contact us via the link at the top of the page. ®

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