GPS: Changing the landscape

A dozen years ago, the Global Positioning System was in its infancy. Now the satellite-based geolocation technology is sophisticated enough to be included in cars, handheld devices and wireless phones.

And experts say that the use of GPS technology on the battlefield could be one of the most important advances for the armed services.

GPS enables a person to determine his or her precise location on the Earth via devices that receive signals from a constellation of 24 satellites. The advantages for a large force that's constantly on the move are enormous, said Robert Martinage, a senior defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

"Only 16 of the 24 [GPS] satellites were operational during Desert Shield and Desert Storm [in the early 1990s], and there weren't many GPS receivers," he said. "Now, [receivers] are on every plane and vehicle and carried by every infantryman."

Martinage said the military is looking for ways to link GPS receivers so battlefield commanders can have an overview of where all of their troops are at any given time. That could eliminate some of the recent friendly fire incidents involving allied forces overseas. The Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System may be part of that solution (see "Joint STARS: Ready for action," Page 22).

When dealing with precision guided weapons, Martinage said, a spotter's ability to give his precise location in relation to a target could mean the difference between U.S. forces taking out an enemy's bunker or accidently firing on civilians or their own troops.

Retired Navy Adm. Archie Clemins, who was commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet in the late 1990s, said the Navy SEALs have always taken advantage of cutting-edge technologies, including GPS. The rest of the services are just catching up, he said.

For example, in a desert, which has few geographic features to distinguish one area from another, the ability to determine one's location can be vital. Knowing where friendly lines end and enemy lines begin is important for troops coordinating air strikes or calling in fire support from ships or artillery batteries.

However, Navy Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said that the armed services should not become overly dependent on GPS. In testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence earlier this month, Jacoby warned that GPS jammers are beginning to find their way into more and more hands. The technology prevents GPS devices from pinpointing a location.

U.S. enemies will continue to seek ways to undermine the military's precision intelligence and attack systems, including using such jammers, he warned.

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