Moscow blamed for disruption of GPS systems at Ben Gurion Airport
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Moscow blamed for disruption of GPS systems at Ben Gurion Airport

Israeli officials say interference caused by Russian military in Syria; Russian embassy dismisses accusation as ‘fake news’

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

An airplane drives along the runwar at Ben Gurion International Airport, on May 8, 2018. (Flash90)
An airplane drives along the runwar at Ben Gurion International Airport, on May 8, 2018. (Flash90)

Israeli officials on Thursday accused Russia of responsibility for the ongoing disruptions to the satellite navigation systems of airplanes flying around Ben Gurion International Airport.

The Russian embassy in Israel dismissed the allegations as “fake news” that they “couldn’t respond to seriously.”

The issue has not yet caused any accidents or safety incidents, but has a “significant impact on all aspects of operating a plane from the cockpit, as well as on managing air traffic,” the Airports Authority said in a statement Wednesday.

The interference with the airplanes’ GPS reception appears to stem from a form of electronic warfare known as “spoofing,” which Russia has been accused of doing in the past as a defensive measure, despite the disruptions it causes to nearby aircraft and ships.

The interference appears to originate in Syria, where Russian troops and aircraft are fighting on behalf of the country’s dictator, Bashar Assad, Israeli officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Israel Defense Forces refused to comment publicly on the source of the interference, but said it has not affected its operations.

“The issue is of civilian concern and the IDF provides technological support in order to facilitate freedom of movement within Israel’s airspace,” the army said. “The IDF operates continuously to maintain operational freedom of movement and superiority in the electromagnetic spectrum.”

The Israeli Airline Pilots Association said Russia’s spoofing was a fairly advanced method of feeding GPS receivers with incorrect location data by a transmitter, making it appear to the pilot as though the aircraft is in a different location, sometimes miles away. As the GPS receiver continues to show location information, it does not immediately appear as a malfunction.

“This type of blocking requires great technical knowledge and high mechanical capability, which is not possessed by individuals or organizations,” the association wrote on Twitter.

Since the interference began, planes in Israel have had to use an alternative method for landings, known as the Instrument Landing System.

“It is a safe and professional method that is used every day in airports around the world, including Israel,” the Airports Authority said.

The GPS reception problem only affects airplanes in the sky, not sensors on the ground.

“Ben Gurion Airport controllers have been giving full guidance to planes that are taking off and landing. At no point has there been a safety incident connected to this GPS interference or related to navigation instructions or flight paths,” the airports spokesman said.

GPS spoofing problems have been reported in Russia in the past. In June 2017, over 20 ships experienced GPS interference while sailing through the Black Sea, showing the vessels to be 25 nautical miles (46.3 kilometers) closer to the shore than they actually were and in some cases on land. Similar anomalies have been reported around the Kremlin and Putin’s Palace.

Researchers have surmised that Russian officials use GPS spoofing as a protective measure for Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to Norwegian news outlet NRKbeta. During the GPS interference in the Black Sea, Putin was located nearby, inspecting a natural gas pipeline.

Areas in Norway and Finland close to the Russian border have also reported this type of GPS interference.

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