Technology

What would happen if the USA switched off GPS?

Getting from A to B with navigation maps has been life changing, however our reliance upon the Global Positioning System (GPS) runs a lot deeper than we may realise. GPS satellites are owned by the United States government and managed by the Department of Defense. There are currently 31 GPS satellites which orbit the earth. GPS provides users with accurate information on position, velocity and time anywhere in the world. GPS not only makes navigation easier, it is essential for the emergency services in identifying the nearest ambulance or police car. GPS consists of 24 satellites carrying atomic clocks that are synchronised to precision. These clocks maintain the time standard followed by the world; Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). When your smartphone is using GPS to navigate, it’s picking up signals from these satellites, making calculations from the satellites’ positioning and the time signals were cast. The same is true of the GPS tracker that you fit to your car. According to surveillance specialists Online Spy Shop, GPS car trackers can even be configured to transmit data on fuel consumption. Accurate time stamps are necessary for the functioning of transactions, trades, cloud computing… the list is endless. Without GPS, the internet would cease to function, as websites need GPS timestamps to route data, essentially, GPS is integral to the smooth running of life as we know it.

If the US switched off GPS, each millisecond would cause financial devastation and the potential crash of the stock market. Millions of dollars could be lost each second as financial transactions would fail to complete. According to research conducted by the BBC, losing satellite navigation for just five days could cost the UK alone a staggering £5bn. With no GPS, the travel sector would also grind to a halt, with planes and ships finding themselves isolated from the rest of the world. There would be no weather forecast, monitoring of natural disasters or terrorist surveillance. The removal of GPS could seriously disrupt most if not all of the systems which govern our daily lives.

If the US decided to claim GPS as a US exclusive system, this could result in a ‘GPS war’, alongside the destruction to our everyday processes and systems. Theoretically, the US can deny access to the system at any given time. In 1999 during the Kargil War, the US prevented the Indian military from accessing the service. After this, countries began to develop their own systems to avoid over reliance upon the US. Countries around the world like India, Japan, China and the United Kingdom are exploring and testing their own satellites. There are currently 7 GPS systems operating in space, the most notable belonging to China and Russia.

It is very unlikely the US would prevent those outside of the US using GPS, this would severely damage international relations, trade deals and the economies of all parties. Since it was declared operational in 1995, the GPS system has never been deactivated, despite war, terror attacks etc. A more likely scenario is each country developing their own system to use to break down the current US monopoly. China’s GPS system ‘Beido’, which translates to ‘Big Dipper’, already has more satellites in orbit than the US version. 

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