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US worries of GPS signal being clouded by Iraq

The United States has indicated United Nations, that Baghdad may be buying contemptible electronic devices capable of knocking America’s smart weapons off-track in the event of war on Iraq.

GPS is a global navigational system that relies on 24 satellites in orbit around the Earth. It is typically used to provide users with highly accurate information about their precise position. But it is also widely used by the U.S. military to guide smart bombs and other weapons.

US Ambassador John Negroponte said that Washington wants the U.N. oil-for-food program for Iraq tightened so it can block Baghdad from using money from its oil sales to buy the devices, known as Global Positioning System (GPS) jammers.

The problem is that the system operates at low power levels, leaving it vulnerable to jamming. “A GPS jammer is just a radio transmitter that transmits on the same frequencies that GPS signals are coming in on,” said Tim Brown, a senior analyst at GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington-based defense think tank.

“The only challenge is to find the frequencies and jam them all simultaneously,” Brown said in a telephone interview. Devices capable of doing this might range in size from something that could fit in a knapsack to something that would have to be carried around by a large truck, he said.

While some experts have said $40 jammers available on the Internet could deal a blow to a U.S. attack on Iraq, others say far more expensive equipment would be needed to have a meaningful effect. But all agreed the devices are readily available, although it was unclear whether Iraq has any or is trying to buy them. “They are of clear concern because they stop bombs from hitting their targets,” said one British diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“There is speculation (Iraqi leader) Saddam Hussein has some of these jammers. There is evidence that he has been able to use them,” said a U.S. congressional aide who follows the issue, speaking on condition he not be identified by name.

“The world knows how dependent we are on GPS, so it’s logical people would want to take that advantage away from us,” the aide said. “We don’t want him to buy it.” The Pentagon is also clearly concerned, awarding two contracts in October for development of a new generation of GPS anti-jamming technology to U.S. defense contractor Raytheon Co. But Brown said he thought the U.S. military was already well equippe to deal with the threat. Washington’s GPS-guided weapons are relatively resistant to jamming, he said. Even if they were not, “coalition forces could detect the jammers’ location by honing in on their signals and then take them out with a missile. That is not to say the Iraqis won’t try to jam GPS. But the overall effect would be marginal,” he said.