Russian e-war system ‘likely’ behind Ben-Gurion disruptions

Globally, a new arms race is developing around the field of satellite-based navigation, a Western source tells JNS

By Yaakov Lappin | | Topics: Russia, Cyber Security
An El Al airliner takes off from Ben-Gurion Airport. Oct. 25, 2021. Photo by Yossi Aloni/Flash90.
An El Al airliner takes off from Ben-Gurion Airport. Oct. 25, 2021. Photo by Yossi Aloni/Flash90.

The Israel Airports Authority has stated that “unknown factors” are disrupting the GPS systems of planes landing at Ben-Gurion Airport in recent months. As a result, planes have been redirected to alternative landing routes, according to Israeli media reports.

A Western source told JNS in recent days that the cause of the disruption is highly likely to be Russian electronic warfare systems located in Syria. While such systems in Syria do not have a line of sight to most of Israeli territory, Israeli airspace is exposed, the source said.

Authorities in Israel are studying the possibility, as such systems are known to be operational both in Syria and on ships in the eastern Mediterranean, and precedent for such incidents already exists.

The Israel Airports Authority first acknowledged the disruption to aircraft satellite signals after the Mateh Binyamin Regional Council complained about noise pollution from landing aircraft that had been flying over it at low altitude, according to a previous report by Israel Hayom.

The Council had asked the IAA why planes were not landing directly from the Mediterranean Sea and instead performing a circling route, flying over Hashmonaim.

Iris Raz, Head of the Environmental Department at the IAA, reportedly replied to the Council that “in recent months, the State of Israel has been experiencing continuous GPS disruptions, presumably from factors outside of Israel. These disturbances almost completely prevent the ability to perform the landing processes.”

There are a number of known global navigation satellite systems, including the famous GPS (Global Positioning System), the Russian GLONASS (GLObalnaya NAvigatsionnaya Sputnikovaya Sistema), the Chinese BeiDou system (named after the Chinese term for the Big Dipper asterism) and the European Galileo system, while an Indian system has recently come online as well.

Modern, mostly commercial satellite receivers can link into more than one satellite signal network, and this makes them harder—though not impossible—to disrupt, the source explained.

Inertial navigation systems, self-contained units that operate alongside satellite receivers, which are not reliant on global navigation satellite system (GNSS) signals and thus not prone to jamming or spoofing, are an additional defensive tool.

“The more the world is dependent on external information for navigation, such as GPS systems, the more it is exposed to dangers including the loss of signal and the disruption or spoofing of such signals, which create false information about the location and speed of objects,” the source said.

“Slowly, this is turning into an entire discipline of ‘navigation combat,’ which influences location navigation and some of the radio equipment that is dependent on precise time knowledge,” said the source.

The United States has developed a component, integrated into some weapons systems, which can partially deal with some of these disruptions, known as Selective Availability and Anti-Spoofing Module (SAASM).

This type of arms race could in fact end up benefiting Israel, due to its world-leading expertise in electronic warfare and ability to export such technology.

In June 2019, Russia denied reports that its systems were disrupting GPS activity around Ben-Gurion airport, describing the claim as “fake.” Army Radio had reported at that time that GPS signal reception was being negatively affected for aircraft taking off and landing from the airport, possibly due to a signals disruption system operated by the Russian military at Khmeimim base on the Syrian coastline.

Similar reports also surfaced in August 2022.

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