Skip to main content

Global Positioning System

Volume 821: debated on Tuesday 26 April 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is the United Kingdom’s fallback should Global Positioning System (GPS) services be (1) disrupted by an enemy, or (2) damaged at the peak of the solar cycle in 2025.

My Lords, I think I would back the noble Lord to get me home safely using dead reckoning. But he is absolutely right to raise the issues of precision and resilience in relation to the importance of position, navigation and timing to the UK’s prosperity and security, including the real risk of disruption. We are actively examining the critical dependencies we have on GPS to inform the measures needed to defend our critical national infrastructure.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. It does not really help in terms of what I actually asked but there is no doubt whatever that the impact of the loss of PNT is almost existential. Banking, trade transactions and all areas of transport and food supply would all be affected and in complete chaos. The signals from GPS and Galileo are very vulnerable. The strength of those signals is less than some of the cosmic signals coming from the stars. They can therefore be intercepted and adjusted very easily; the Chinese and Russians have already done this. It is absolutely essential that the national PNT strategy, which is being worked on, is brought forward as a matter of urgency. There will be a real risk to this nation if we do not do that. Is there any thought in that strategy of having a terrestrial, high-strength power system to be a fallback should we lose the satellite systems because of satellites either being knocked out, which our enemies can do, or being interrupted by other electronic means?

My Lords, I did try to answer the Question, and I agree with the noble Lord in his original Question that this is important. The review to which he referred has concluded, and it identified overreliance on GPS and other space-based systems. It looked at numerous use cases across the economy and recommended a system-of-systems approach as being the best fit for the UK, which would obviously include examination of ground or lower-level alternatives. The review concluded that the Government should support resilience by exploring new systems, and a whole-of-government effort is necessary to do this. That is under way and will be led by BEIS.

My Lords, I remind your Lordships’ House of my interest as director of reserves at UK Strategic Command. The UK Government have invested some $500 million in OneWeb, which was viewed by some as a very expensive insurance policy as part of the Brexit negotiations. However, because of its low-orbit technology and its second-tier satellites, does this not present a potential opportunity to solve the problem that the noble Lord, Lord West, has put before the House today and also provide a return on investment for UK taxpayers?

My Lords, we have always been clear that the possible provisioning of PNT services was not actually the rationale for our investment in OneWeb. The spaced-based positioning, navigation and timing programme analysed a number of ideas for concepts in low-earth orbit, and OneWeb was one of the many companies contributing to that. It is primarily a telecoms operation and that is where its primary focus is. However, we are not ruling out that low orbit and so on may play a role in future services.

My Lords, the United States’ space-based PNT policy suggests that:

“GPS users must plan for potential signal loss and take reasonable steps to verify or authenticate the integrity of the received GPS data and ranging signal, especially in applications where even small degradations can result in loss of life.”

What advice do Her Majesty’s Government give to GPS users in this country?

My Lords, users in this country certainly need to be aware of the potential difficulties, including space weather. The year 2025 is expected to have quite a high level of solar activity. Overall responsibility for providing facilities and back-up falls on the Government, which is why we conducted the review and are taking some of the measures that I have intimated to the House.

My Lords, the 2025 solar cycle is a serious issue. Can the Minister assure the House that the Government are in regular touch with the Royal Astronomical Society, which embodies an enormous amount of expertise in this and other areas related to astronomy and the sun?

My Lords, I have referred to space weather and the solar cycle, and I agree with the noble Viscount that it is important because at the height of the solar cycle it can disrupt or block access to GPS. We are expanding our space weather monitoring capability, and this will contribute to active correction of GPS as the authorities improve their accuracy. We are also undertaking the other measures that I have mentioned to allow back-up resilience.

My Lords, in a Written Answer in January 2022, the Government stated that they were “considering the findings” of the space-based positioning, navigation and timing programme

“to determine the next steps as part of the business planning process.”

Is the Minister able to tell us what they have decided, or when they expect to decide on the next steps? Regarding the noble Lord’s question about OneWeb, am I to assume that we do not expect OneWeb to play any part in this important decision, particularly since our shareholding, as I understand it, has now been reduced from the proclaimed 45% when we bought it to 17% now?

My Lords, there were several questions there. I referred to the position on OneWeb earlier. I also said that the Cabinet Office review had now concluded and that we were working towards a system-of-systems approach. The UK has a range of PNT-related programmes in development across a number of departments: the National Timing Centre at BEIS; a robust global navigation solution that MoD is working on; and the space-based augmentation service for aviation and maritime safety, which DfT is working on. There are a number of other science and technology investments, but I do not wish to take too much of your Lordships’ time.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware of the House of Lords special inquiry which reported in December 2021, Preparing for Extreme Risks: Building A Resilient Society, which examined the very issue raised by my noble friend Lord West. At the heart of this is how the Government prepare for risk across a range of issues. Will he look at the risk register and how it is used by government? At the moment, the risk register considers the probability of an event that is regarded as a risk happening within the next two years. We are aware that, in preparing for risks, you have to look at a much longer time span than the next two years. If we look back at preparation for the pandemic, for example, we see that we did not look far enough ahead. Will he take back to government and perhaps report back to your Lordships’ House and respond to the committee report on horizon scanning over a 10 or 20-year period, rather than the two-year period that is currently undertaken?

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes some fair observations and, as I said, the noble Lord raises an important question, which the Government do not underestimate. We are currently updating our risk assessment on the critical dependencies that we have on GPS and other positional, navigation and time data sources. This will inform the measures we are taking under the various programmes I mentioned to the House. These potential threats need consideration; resilience is vital, and the Government will seek to address it.

My Lords, in an earlier answer, the Minister set out a variety of different programmes and initiatives. Where is the guiding hand, and what is the guiding hand for this? How often are these many and various programmes assessed against each other, and when might we see how they move forward?

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for BEIS wrote to the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons on 25 March setting out the position and saying that his department would be leading the co-ordination—subject, obviously, to continuing resourcing. As the noble Lord acknowledges, the matter involves other departments, but the authoritative letter on the record from my right honourable friend sets out the position on co-ordination.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that for some 10 years Trinity House, London has had a specialist unit on this subject? It is unquestionably true—exactly as the noble Lord, Lord West, stated—that the Americans, the Russians and the Chinese are streets ahead of us. I am only surprised that nothing has happened as yet. As for what might happen and choosing ideas, it could happen at any time.

My Lords, I think the whole House recognises the expertise of the first questioner and the last speaker. Yes, hostile threats are potential and potentially real, and the Government take that very much into consideration. We know that China and Russia are actively pursuing hostile space capabilities, and that is very much part of our thinking.