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GPS jamming near conflict zones affect cargo ships transiting Mediterranean and the Black Sea

Updated – April 07, 2024 at 03:15 PM.

On April 4, some 117 different cargo-carrying vessels appeared in Beirut-Rafic Al Hariri International airport in Lebanon

Cargo ships transiting the Mediterranean and the Black Sea are faced with growing incidents of GPS jamming wherein ship navigation data is manipulated or interfered with near conflict zones. On April 4, some 117 different cargo-carrying vessels appeared in Beirut-Rafic Al Hariri International airport in Lebanon, according to the US-based Lloyd’s List Intelligence vessel-tracking data.

This trend has become common since the Hamas attacks on Israel in October, 2023. Vessels sailing in the eastern Mediterranean first started showing up at an airport — on land — at the end of October.

While the ‘spoofing’ of ships’ AIS signals to create false vessel locations has become a common tactic to circumvent sanctions, the widespread jamming of GPS signals in the Black Sea marks a potentially dangerous new method of AIS manipulation.

Lloyds List, one of the world’s oldest continuously running journals, having provided weekly shipping news in London as early as 1734, says that over 100 cargo-carrying ships appeared to show up in Beirut airport on Wednesday.

An average of 35 ships operating in the region were being impacted each day in March. However, this figure jumped to 74 on April 3 and climbed to 117 on April 4, the journal said.

Lloyd’s List analysis of AIS signals has identified a total of 655 individual incidents of third party interference in Global Navigation Satellite System signals in the past year. The vast majority of those cases have been recorded since January, 2024, the journal said.

The UK Maritime Trade Operations in a notice on Wednesday said that it had received a report of a vessel experiencing disruption to electronic navigation systems (GPS/AIS) between April 1 and 3 east of Ras Al Zour, Saudi Arabia. Vessels are advised to transit with caution.

This is a dangerous trend, said a master mariner, who was till a year back managing a large container ship. Many merchant ships have been additionally fitted with GLONASS satellite system (Russian) for such emergencies when GPS Systems (US) on board have been jammed, he said.

K Vivekanand, Academic Director of the Chennai-based ADU Academy India, a collaborative venture between VEDA in India and American Digital University (ADU) Services in the US, says war zone GPS jamming can be a serious problem mainly with military operations, rather than merchant shipping. Due to heavy dependence on GPS, military operations may be affected by disruption of Navigation, Targeting systems, Communication systems and Countermeasures, he told businessline.

The scenario is not so critical with merchant ships, as there are other means of monitoring ships position at sea, apart from GPS. If the ships are sailing in coastal waters, radar can be used to track positions (even though Radar can also be jammed), said Vivekanand, a Master Mariner with 26 years of service at sea.

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