Russian military trucks are jamming commercial airplane navigation systems

April 1, 2022, 10:43 AM UTC

Russia’s military has been jamming satellite navigation systems used by commercial aircraft since the invasion of Ukraine, highlighting the need for robust alternatives, according to a French safety regulator.

Airline pilots have reported disruptions in regions around the Black Sea, eastern Finland and the Kaliningrad enclave, said Benoit Roturier, head of satellite navigation at France’s civil aviation authority DGAC. The interference appears to be caused by Russian trucks carrying jamming equipment typically used to protect troops and installations against GPS-guided missiles, he said.

“I don’t think the goal is to jam civil aviation at this stage,” Roturier said in an interview. “That is collateral damage.”

While no dangerous in-flight situation has occurred due to backup measures, pilots confronted with an episode are forced to deal with cockpit alerts that can be distracting, he said. 

“All of Europe needs to prepare contingency plans for when these satellite systems are lost,” Roturier said. “For some countries closer to the front, who may be less advanced in putting in place contingency plans, the current situation has served to highlight the need. It’s a wake-up call.”

The jamming of satellite signals used for navigation has thrown up yet another aviation complication from the conflict, which has led to flying bans across the countries and triggered a range of sanctions on airlines and jet manufacturers.

Representatives for Russia’s defense ministry and the Kremlin didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Probable Problems

Earlier this month, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency warned of an “increased probability of problems” with the Global Navigation Satellite Systems used by commercial aircraft due to the war.

The issue has a precedent in 2018, when some 60 airlines reported several hundred partial or complete losses of satellite navigation services, according to a 2019 EU report to the International Civil Aviation Organization.

“In most cases the likely cause was ground-originated jamming,” the report said, citing the use of high-power jammers impacting large swathes of airspace in areas where there was “political tension.”

Russia was responsible for the 2018 incidents as well, according to Roturier, as part of the country’s military support for Syria.

Backup Technologies

The aviation industry generally uses one Global Positioning System frequency for satellite navigation, but there are backup technologies for when signals are lost. 

“Airplanes hit by jamming can continue to fly using inertial navigation systems—that is standard and works with GPS,” Roturier said. “This could be less accurate, but can be used when GPS goes down.”

Yet the recent incidents related to the Ukraine war have sparked a realization among regulators of the potential for massive airspace disruptions, especially as the European Union pushes for increasing reliance on satellite navigation. 

“In France, a strong military-jamming event using one truck could cut out a quarter of French skies,” Roturier said. “This is what is worrisome for civil aviation. Large areas can be affected outside of conflict zones.”

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