U.S. Army awarded contracts to Russian GPS jammer vendor

The U.S. Army awarded $192,000 in contracts in 2002 to a Russian company identified in news reports as a supplier of Global Positioning System (GPS) jamming equipment to Iraq.

Moscow-based Aviaconversiya Ltd. has denied selling the jamming equipment to Iraq, according to the news reports. Officials there couldn't be reached for comment this week, despite repeated attempts by Computerworld to do so.

On Tuesday, President Bush personally complained to Russian Premier Vladimir Putin about the sale of Russian military equipment to Iraq, according to White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. In a press briefing that day, Fleischer said the White House was "concerned" about reports "of ongoing cooperation and support to Iraqi military forces being provided by a Russian company that produces GPS jamming equipment. ... We have credible evidence that Russian companies provided the assistance and the prohibited hardware to the Iraqi regime.

"The President raised with President Putin our ongoing concerns about support [that] would be provided for Iraqi military forces by Russian companies that produced the equipment," he said. Putin promised to look into the issue, Fleischer said.

Iraq evidently tried to use those jammers against U.S. forces after the U.S.-led coalition began strikes against Iraqi targets last week. "We have noticed some attempts by the Iraqis to use a GPS jamming system that they obtained from another nation. We have destroyed all six of those jammers in the last two nights' airstrikes. I'm pleased to say they had no effect on us," Air Force Maj. Gen. Victor Renuart, of the U.S. Central Command, said yesterday.

Air Force Lt. Col. Ken McClellan, a Defense Department spokesman, acknowledged that the Army had let contracts to Aviaconversiya. The company is included on an online list of all Defense Department contracts worth more than $25,000 that were awarded in 2002 (download PDF from Defenselink). But he declined to provide any details.

"Because of the sensitive nature of what constitutes exact military capabilities, or potential vulnerabilities, I doubt seriously whether you'll find anyone willing to go beyond the previously released information from Defenselink or Commerce Business Daily," McClellan said in an e-mail reply to questions about the contract.

GPS experts said the Army most likely bought equipment from Aviaconversiya to test its capabilities, which in turn would help U.S. forces avoid jamming or attack jammers being used against them. But, James Hasik, a GPS consultant in Atlanta, said he doubts that the jammers would have much effect on GPS-equipped smart weapons used in Iraq such as the Tomahawk cruise missile or Joint Direct Attack Munitions, because they have backup guidance systems such as gyroscope-based inertial navigation systems.

Richard Langley, a professor of geodesy at the University of New Brunswick in Canada, agreed and said the jammers would also have a hard time interfering with an encrypted military GPS code broadcast at a frequency of 1227.6 MHz. But the jammers could interfere with signals broadcast at 1575.42 MHz, a band used by commercial GPS receivers. Such receivers could have been bought by individual troops, but the Army tried to derail that practice in January. In the January 2003 "Pathfinder" newsletter (download PDF), the Army warned troops of the "severe risks" associated with the use of commercial GPS receivers on the battlefield. The newsletter is published by the Army's Program Manager GPS in Fort Monmouth, N.J.

"Never use them for calling in your critical position information," the newsletter cautioned, urging the use of a crypto-protected Precision Lightweight GPS Receiver (PLGR) made by Rockwell Collins Inc. in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The newsletter said the PLGR is "your best protection against spoofing and jamming and the mission failure or death that could result from their effect on a commercial" receiver.

Hasik said jamming of civilian signals could be detrimental if pilots of aging aircraft such as the Air Force A-10 or the Navy F-14 have bought handheld commercial receivers to make up for those planes' lack of built-in GPS. Jamming could interfere with critical navigation functions of the receivers, he said.

GPS receivers are susceptible to jamming because of the weak nature of the signals as they travel to receivers on earth from 24 satellites in space, Hasik said.

This week's warning about the sale of Russian GPS jammers to Iraq and the subsequent attack on them illustrate the Pentagon's concern about interference with one of the core technologies of its smart weapons systems. Earlier this year, McClellan said the Pentagon had a "somewhat serious concern about an online article in 'Phrack' that detailed how to build a homemade GPS jammer" (see story).

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