Dozens of planes sent off course with unprecedented navigation system attacks

Dozens of commercial airliners flying over parts of the Middle East have reported a serious new spoofing attack on their navigation systems over the past few months, Vice’s Motherboard reports.

A group of pilots and flight technicians called OPSGROUP first raised the alarm about the issue in September 2023.

In their latest update in November, the group said they received 50 reports of GPS spoofing activity over a five-week period.

The suspected attacks result in pilots being fooled into thinking they are in a different location than their real position.

“If a GPS position signal is faked, most aircraft are incapable of detecting the ruse,” OPSGROUP said.

Although these attacks are not unusual in the Middle East, the latest ones affect GPS and can result in critical failures of fallback and other navigation systems.

That includes the critical inertial reference system (IRS), previously thought unsusceptible to spoofing.

IRS consists of gyroscopes, accelerometers, and an assortment of other advanced equipment that can help planes navigate when a pilot’s visibility is limited.

OPSGROUP said the compromising of this system sounded “unthinkable”.

“IRS should be a standalone system, unable to be spoofed,” OPSGROUP said.

“The idea that we could lose all on-board nav capability, and have to ask air traffic control for our position and request a heading, makes little sense at first glance — especially for state-of-the-art aircraft with the latest avionics.”

“However, multiple reports confirm that this has happened.”

OPSGROUP has identified three distinct spoofing scenarios and zones in the Middle East, as shown in the map below.

Among the most troubling reports of spoofing of airliners tracked by the group over the past five weeks were the following:

  • Gulfstream G650 experienced full nav failure on departure from Tel Aviv (25 Oct). The crew reports, “ATC advised we were off course and provided vectors. Within a few minutes our EPU was 99.0, FMS, IRS, and GPS position were unreliable. The navigation system thought it was 225nm south of our present position.”.
  • Bombardier Global Express was spoofed on departure from LLBG/Tel Aviv (16 Oct). A false GPS position showed the position as overhead OLBA/Beirut. Crew advises, “The controller warned us that we are flying towards a forbidden area”.
  • Boeing 777 experienced a 30-minute GPS spoofing encounter in the Cairo FIR (16 Oct). A false GPS position showed the aircraft as stationary overhead LLBG for 30 minutes.
  • Bombardier Global 7500 was spoofed three separate times in the Cairo FIR (16 Oct 2023). Crew advises: “The first took out one GPS, the second took out a GPS and all 3 IRS’s, and the third time took both GPS’s and all 3 IRS’s.” The distance from LLBG was roughly 220-250 miles, and the spoofing stopped once we were approximately 250nm west of LLBG.
  • An Embraer Legacy 650 en route from Europe to Dubai. They said, “In Baghdad airspace, we lost both GPS in the aircraft and on both iPads. Further, the IRS didn’t work anymore. We only realised there was an issue because the autopilot started turning to the left and right, so it was obvious that something was wrong. After a couple of minutes we got error messages on our FMS regarding GPS, etc. So, we had to request radar vectors. We were showing about 80 nm off track. During the event, we nearly entered Iran airspace (OIIX/Tehran FIR) with no clearance.
  • Bombardier Challenger 604 experienced spoofing in the Baghdad FIR and required vectors all the way to Doha. “Nearing north of Baghdad something happened where we must have been spoofed. We lost anything related to Nav and the IRS suggested we had drifted by 70–90 miles. We had a ground speed of zero and the aircraft calculated 250kts of wind. The FMS’s reverted to DR (Dead Reckoning) and had no idea where they were. We initially took vectors to get around the corner at SISIN. Nav capability was never restored, so we required vectors all the way from Iraq to Doha for an ILS. We never got our GPS sensors back until we fired up the plane and went back to home base two days later.”

OPSGROUP said there has been a slow response from the industry about the incidents, leaving flight crews alone to find ways of detecting and mitigating the spoofing.

However, the additional reliance on air traffic control — already notoriously hard-pressed in their usual daily routines — is not a scalable solution.

University of Texas professor Todd Humphreys told Vice that GPS spoofing acts like a zero-day exploit against aviation systems.

Humphreys is among several researchers who have warned about attacks on IRS over the past 15 years.

“They’re completely unprepared for it and powerless against it.”

Countries suspected to be carrying out GPS spoofing include Israel and Iran.

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Dozens of planes sent off course with unprecedented navigation system attacks