The US Air Force, Space Force, and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is awaiting the launch of a dedicated satellite, the Navigation Technology Satellite-3 (NTS-3), to enhance their fundamental Position-Navigation-Timing (PNT) services.
Overreliance on the Global Positioning System (GPS) has been expected to be vulnerable to Russian and Chinese Anti-Satellite (ASAT), lasers, and Electronic Warfare (EW) jamming.
Vice Chief of Space Operations General David D. Thompson admitted before the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Sub-Committee hearing on May 11 about “(the US having) rely on it solely and exclusively and too heavily.”
Gen Thompson was touching upon Lockheed Martin winning the contract to design the satellites of the GPS-III follow-on program in 2018, calling it a “world standard” and how it has been improved with new “upgraded software, (being made) modular to make sure that it’s resilient.”
With three more GPS-III satellites being declared for launch, Lockheed has also developed ground control software to operationalize an ultra-secure and jam-resistant ‘M-code’ signal.
Presently, the total GPS constellation consists of 33 satellites. Thompson’s admission was apparently in response to Senator Angus King’s hypothetical question about what would happen to an F-35 flying over the Pacific if the GPS satellites it relies on for navigation suddenly black out.
However, fears are rife about its vulnerability, reflected in the aggressive push for the dedicated-PNT NTS-3 satellites.
EurAsian Times reported how Russian advances in Electronic Warfare (EW) had resulted in US defense officials noticing their drones and GPS signals being jammed over Crimea and Syria in 2014 and 2018, respectively.
EurAsian Times had also featured Russian anti-satellite and anti-drone laser weapons, the Kalina, Peresvet, and the Zadira.
While the Peresvet and Zadira are primarily anti-drone lasers, the Kalina is an “electro-optical warfare” weapon that can permanently blind hostile satellites by beaming laser pulses to damage (or ‘dazzle’) a satellite’s optical sensors.
Also, since 2001, an airborne system, Sokol-Eshelon, has been developed, but its current status is unclear.
Goodbye GPS, Welcome NTS-3?
Developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), the NTS-3 will operate for one year in Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) and identify the current weaknesses of the GPS signals and key aspects for new GPS receivers that incorporate multiple signals.
The USAF designated the NTS project as a ‘Vanguard‘ program in 2019 that prioritizes urgent defense programs for accelerated funding and development.
“The prototype demonstration of NTS-3 will involve a space-based test vehicle, ground-based command and control, and agile software-defined radios for the user.
In particular, NTS-3 will experiment with multiple integrated advanced technologies, including electronically steered phased array antennas, flexible and secure signals, software-defined GPS receivers, increased ground control segment (GCS) automation, and use of commercial ground antennas,” a statement from the AFRL read.
NTS-3 will also operate under various scenarios and test new systems. This includes a new digital signal generator that can be reprogrammed on-orbit, enabling it to broadcast new signals; enhanced interference and jamming-proofing transmission; adding signatures to ‘mask’ the original signal and counter ‘spoofing’; various antenna configurations with its steerable regional beams in multiple frequencies and signal codes; working in “lights out” modes, where aircraft and weapons platforms switch off their radars, communications and satellite links to avoid being detected; ground control station failure; real-time accurate PNT service in various terrain and; correcting errors in signals and transmission.
PNT signals are also often affected by space-based phenomena like degrading orbits, radiation from the Van Allen belt, the ionosphere being impacted by solar flares, and the overall congestion in space communication due to the proliferation of satellites. The data collected will be used to design subsequent NTS-3/PNT satellites.
The NTS-3 has two defining features. One is its large-phased array antennae that allows it to generate concentrated ‘spot-beams’ for a particular location while retaining the fundamental capability for generally broadcasting PNT services to Earth.
Next are reprogrammable and software-defined receivers that are hard to jam. With a dedicated and specialized ground control infrastructure, NTS-3 is expected to maintain the US military’s lead in exclusive PNT for its aircraft, missiles, land platforms, and warships.