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Op-Ed: As Cyber Warfare Spreads, Bureaucrats May Refuse NextGen GPS That Prevents Hacking

March 03, 2016

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We’ve all read the headlines.

China continues a relentless cyber-assault on America. Last year we discovered a Chinese-launched hacking operation may have stolen personal data of over 20 million past and present federal government workers.  Including yours truly, a recipient of the dreaded notification memo from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).


Meanwhile, Russian hackers penetrated the White House unclassified e-mail server, and broke into Dow Jones and U.S. banks.  Kremlin-backed cyber-thieves routinely target Georgia, Ukraine and even NATO countries like Estonia, stealing hundreds of millions from their banks. 

North Korea hacked into Sony Pictures to protest Seth Rogen’s film, “The Interview” and then launched a satellite.  Iran has been hacking U.S. officials, and launched satellites too.

With the next 9/11 or Pearl Harbor likely coming by way of crippling cyber-attacks, the Department of Defense ought to be committed to protect us from this threat.  Yet incredibly, in some ways, it seems policy makers are going in the opposite direction.

Since 2010, the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center has been working on a cutting edge program to harden and modernize the Global Positioning System, called the Next Generation Operational Control System (GPS OCX).  It’s a ground-based system operating from Colorado and California designed to double the accuracy of position, accuracy and timing, while safeguarding against cyber-attacks.  It could also communicate with all of America’s satellites, a win/win for our military and everybody else just going about their daily lives.

Like many critical infrastructure programs before it, GPS OCX is a complicated engineering first. This has never been done before, and unsurprisingly, the program has experienced setbacks.  But after a number of detailed reviews last Fall, it seems many of its challenges are in the rear view mirror. So why are top DoD officials responsible for overseeing acquisitions threatening to pull the plug on such a vital program to protect and modernize an essential part of American military and civilian life?

Can anyone imagine driving without GPS these days?  Or even walking through an unfamiliar city and finding directions?

What about military planners targeting Islamic State terrorists in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and beyond?  What about Navy deployments?  When I was a Midshipman, sure we learned celestial navigation.  Though I’ll admit, steering by the stars isn’t as easy as it looks, especially on a cloudy night.

Yet our current GPS system is vulnerable to enemy attack and the program faces unnecessary uncertainty from Pentagon officials.

Over the last five years, all the services have been rocked by major defense cuts, many beyond the Pentagon’s control.  That’s not news.  But if budgets are an indication of priorities, and I believe they are, DoD appears to be doubling down on improving cyber-capabilities by requesting $6.7 billion for it in Fiscal Year 2017.

Thus it seems counterintuitive that as Secretary Ash Carter is telling Congress that the FY-2017 budget request, “reflects our efforts to make a fundamental shift toward a culture of accountability in cyber-space,” the Air Force is considering a halt to a program that’s primary focus is to eliminate cyber-threats from critical technology.  Does that make any sense at all?

While the GPS OCX is over budget and behind schedule, that doesn’t mean it should be scrapped, re-programmed or even threatened that way.  After all, $3.6 billion has already been allocated towards the program.  Wouldn’t it be a colossal waste to throw it all away?  And for what alternative?

Sure, Pentagon pressure on late programs or higher costs is justified.  Yet that doesn’t mean you throw away the baby with the bathwater.  To the contrary, DoD leaders ought to work even more closely with the Air Force to get this highly sophisticated program into operation as soon as possible.

Cybersecurity is simply one area where DoD can’t afford to be pennywise and pound-foolish.

With looming threats from cyberspace and plenty of folks who wish to cripple America, our GPS is one system we can’t afford to lose.

J.D. Gordon is a retired Navy Commander and former Pentagon spokesman who served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2005-2009. He has also served as a Senior Adviser to several Washington, DC based think tanks.