The Dangers of Relying too Heavily on Helm Electronics, by Capt. Bill Pike (continued)
Now I’m contemplating a different sort of theory, one that seems improbable at first, but is ultimately perhaps more plausible. Dana Goward, a retired U.S. Coast Guard captain and president of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation (www.rntfnd.org) in Alexandria, Virginia, says “GPS spoofing” is at the bottom of the affair, not sloppy navigation. And what’s more, he contends that the GPS units on board the two RCBs, as well as some related electronic paraphernalia, were spoofed into an embarrassing situation by Iranian computer hackers, in much the same, highly publicized way that the GPS units on board the megayacht White Rose of Drachs were hijacked (as part of a demonstration) by professor Todd Humphreys and some grad students from the University of Texas at Austin in 2013.
Capt. Goward is far from an ill-informed speculator or alarmist. In addition to testifying before Congress on GPS-related matters, he held several top-shelf jobs with the U.S. Coast Guard prior to his retirement, among them director of transportation systems for the guard, chief of the search and rescue policy division, chief of boat forces, and director of assessment, integration and risk management. Moreover, he is a U.S. Coast Guard Academy graduate and MIT Seminar Fellow.
“In 2011,” Goward explained during a recent phone interview, “the Iranians claimed to have manipulated the GPS on a CIA surveillance drone, sent it off its course, and then captured it. The fact that they later had possession of the drone made these claims credible. Why couldn’t the Iranians have done the very same thing to these two Navy vessels?”
Goward then outlined a spoofing scenario based on his own experiences as a navigator at sea. He began by suggesting that the crews of both RCBs, at the onset of their mission, had perhaps skipped the involved process of “keying in” any GPS encryption technology they may have had on board (See “A Mainstream Electronics Wizard Speaks”), due to the routine nature of the trip from Kuwait to Bahrain, an oversight that would have made the units much easier to spoof than encrypted units. He then went on to suggest that a couple of navigational redundancies that would have proved helpful to the crews while underway were quite possibly rendered unavailable by the planned route the boats had taken, “down the middle of the (Persian) Gulf,” according to the U.S. Navy Central Command.
“Conditions out there in open water,” he explained, “are often hazy, sandy, and foggy. So, given such conditions, you could reasonably expect that these two boats got far enough offshore so that both radar and visual bearings became unreliable if they were possible at all. So ultimately, for better or worse, these folks may have been relying on GPS exclusively or almost exclusively to navigate.”