The death of Loran

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The Coast Guard announced Jan. 7 it would decommission the Loran-C program and terminate the Loran-C signal broadcast from Jupiter Inlet, Fla., effective Feb. 8. The federal government says technological advances, specifically the advent of GPS, have made the 67-year-old Loran-C program obsolete as a maritime navigational tool. Chuck Husick, an electronics engineer who runs a consultancy in the marine and aviation fields, tells us how the decision was made, and why it's wrong.

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The Commandant of the Coast Guard has announced his agreement with his superiors in the chain of command - the Department of Homeland Security - that the Coast Guard no longer has a requirement for Loran-C navigation service. By so doing he completes a step toward the destruction of a proven, trusted and reliable position, navigation and timing system that continues to serve countless users.

Although I most strongly disagree with the Commandant's stated position that Loran is no longer required by the Coast Guard, I understand that he is acting as a military officer must: obeying a lawful order.

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The fact that the order that the Commandant followed was lawful and properly presented does not mitigate the damage that will result from the destruction of the Loran electronic position navigation and timing system. In my opinion - and in the opinion of many who possess more technical knowledge than I - we will regret the loss of this terrestrial-based and robust system.

GPS is not enough

The evidence in favor of maintaining Loran-C and completing the transition to eLoran (a much improved, most automatic system) has been visible for years, on occasion in official Coast Guard Notices to Mariners that warned of significant GPS position errors and interference caused by very low level RF radiation from defective amplified TV antennas.

Other accidental interference incidents include loss of GPS position and timing information coverage (causing failure of many of the cell phone systems) over a substantial area in San Diego when a government transmitter emitted a strong signal that blocked the reception of the GPS signal.

We most certainly cannot ignore the possibility (likelihood?) of malicious action. A series of intentional signal interference (spoofing) tests conducted in the United Kingdom demonstrated the ability of a less than 2 watt transmitter to disrupt the GPS position information on vessels more than 20 nautical miles from the test site.

These vessels were not deprived of GPS information, just given totally erroneous positions.

You may also wish to consider that the very highly regarded AIS system depends to a large degree on the availability of good GPS information. A small spoofing transmitter near a major harbor or in-shore traffic lane might cause more than a little confusion on multiple bridges.

Last, but by no means least, we may want to take into account the ability of our sun to interfere with GPS. Solar flare events are by no means uncommon - though we have recently been in a solar minimum period - and can cause interference with a wide range of wireless communication, including GPS. According to records the solar storm of 1848 was intense enough to knock out the telegraph. More recent solar events have disrupted the distribution of electrical power over a large area of the U.S. Northeast and Canada.

We have no way of knowing if or when an innocent, accidental, malicious or natural event will deprive users of GPS PNT (position, navigation and timing) information. However, we should be willing to accept the fact that "something" will happen and guard against relying on a single source of navigation information.

For lack of a champion

However, there is no value in blaming the Coast Guard for what has happened. They - along with all who rely on today's Loran-C and who would have relied upon eLoran tomorrow - need to devote their efforts toward understanding why the kill decision was forced on the Coast Guard.

Our government willingly invests vast sums of money in the military for personnel, facilities and equipment, and developing new sophisticated systems at a mad pace. We allow Congress to force the military to "buy" things they don't want or need. There is one common thread among all of the various, acquisition and development programs: Every one of them has one - or in most cases numerous - champions. Loran-C, in existence for 30 years, has outlived its champions.

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The Coast Guard's first budget priority must be to obtain the gear it needs to carry out its missions - stuff that flies and floats, plus whatever it takes to make the gear and people who use it effective. So long as the Coast Guard can make use of GPS, it has no reason whatever to be interested in Loran-C, eLoran or any other PNT system. At their level they must be ready to fight today's war. They are not responsible for counteracting something about which they have no knowledge or responsibility.

The illusion of security

The destruction of Loran is a logical result of the way in which the government manages the Coast Guard, via the Department of Homeland Security. The decision process that led to the elimination of Loran began in the White House and its Office of Management and Budget, the OMB. The short story is quite simple: Budget cuts were needed, and they saw a few bucks ($190 million) laying about - the money that would theoretically be saved over the coming years by killing Loran at once. There were no Loran champions around OMB, only accountants who needed to fill in those squares marked "cuts."

Of course the actual situation was likely more complex. The Coast Guard's budget has generally omitted providing line-item funding for Loran; the service has had to rely on Congress to force feed what little money they were given for the work. Loran was an orphan within the Coast Guard.

Unfortunately - and only time will demonstrate the degree to which we will be unfortunate - there was no one at DHS with the level of interest, knowledge and political clout needed to move the Loran decision away from the save-money-square-filling exercise.

DHS will merrily spend fortunes on new systems and devices intended to deter terrorists, even when the likely result will be only an additional level of security illusion.

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