LORAN-C politics.

Poul-Henning Kamp
Revision 2003-03-12

Navigating politics or political navigation ?

Radionavigation has always been tangled up in politics, and there seems to be no end to that. LORAN-C is no exception. This page is my take on the current situation for LORAN-C in Europe and to a lesser degree elsewhere.

The first radio navigation systems came not long after first radio, and various narratives can be found which detail the development. Most of these are entirely technical, and often so imprecise that even I can spot the errors.

I recently stumbled on the complete Memoirs of J.A.Pierce on the web, which I will recommend as a good sideways introduction to the subject. Memoirs should of course be read as what they are: people telling what they want to tell, how they want to tell it, but that does not preclude them from being both interesting and entertaining, as this one certainly is.

The LORAN-C chains in Europe was built by the US Coast Guard in order to provider coverage throughout the bits of the world which the 3rd world war was likely to cover. That means that even today there is practically no coverage on the antipodal half. The eight transmitters in the OMEGA system on the other hand did provide global coverage, but at much lower precision.

One major problem with both OMEGA and Loran-C systems in a war situation is that it would take only a modest number of bombs, conventional or nuclear, to remove the antennas from service, so obviously ICBMs could never rely on them and generally used intertial guidance instead.

A less vulnerable navigation system was high on the wish-list, and "NAVSTAR", or "GPS" as we know it today, delivered. With the LORAN-C losing it's critical role, the US Gov handed the plots of land they had borrowed for their transmitters back to the host nations, complete with transmitters, antenna and everything, around 1994 I belive.

The affected countries joined together and formed NELS - North European Loran System to continue to operate the transmitters.

For technical reasons, the GRI's and layouts were changed, and not only that, but the GRI was changed from being "multiple of 100usec" to being merely "multiple of 10usec" or "four digit" instead of "three digit". This rendered most receivers obsolete and rather than update to a newer LORAN-C receiver, boat-owners obviously went for the latest and greatest: GPS.

At the same time, the host nations were mostly running the LORAN-C to avoid leaving their customers stranded (pun intended), with no overriding plan or goal for the service, so the agreement behind NELS was only made for a short number of years.

A similar situation was found in USA, where the shutdown of LORAN-C seemed certain and the date was more or less chosen.

Then two things happened: It became known how simple it is to jam GPS signals, and GPS was not approved for single-means navigation of aircrafts, this prompted that LORAN-C be kept on life-support "for now".

Along side this, the Soviet Union launched a GPS system lookalike called GLONASS, which never received the funding necessary to actually become reliable enough to be useful for anybody.

And finally the super-power aspirations of the European Union resulted in a political pressure to not be reliant in the US defense for navigation signals. EU tried to persuade the USA to put GPS under civilian or NATO control. When that failed, a project "Galileo" was launched, which should put Europes own GPS system aloft.

...except, the EU was not prepared to foot the bill, so some vague dot-com like calculations shows how it will be a great benefit to "the industry" and that they therefore will be more than willing to pay. The industry seems unaware of this, and Galileo struggles from one budget to the next, only funded enough to be a sufficient credible threat in the negotiations with the USAnians, who on the other hand tries every means available to them to kill it dead in the crib.

In the meantime, a bunch of dutch boffins have come up with a way to use the incredibly resillient LORAN-C signals as a channel for transmitting dGPS signals, and managed to secure enough funds to get this implemented on most of the NELS transmitters under the US-fobic name of EuroFix.

So where does that leave LORAN-C for the future ?

The main concern today is the fact that the GPS signals are so easy to jam, either by the US military or by means of a home-built gadget which most high-school proto engineers could build in their room without their parents knowing about it.

The fact that Galileo is designed to use the same center frequency as GPS and therefore would be jammed along with GPS, is hopefully something which in the end will prevent the EU from wasting more tax-payer money than absolutely necessary on the project. (NB: You won't find my money in a bet on that.)

LORAN-C signals on the other hand goes through everything and can only be plausibly denied if you use explosives on the remotely located transmitters.

It would therefore seem to any rational mind that LORAN-C makes the perfect backup for GPS, and that integrated GPS+LORAN-C receivers would be the next great thing: LORAN-C would provide coverage where GPS can't and GPS would allow one to calibrate the LORAN-C signal to build the necessary correction database to use LORAN-C for normal navigation purposes.

Add to this that for the cost of one launch of a single Galileo satelite, you can add a couple of LORAN-C stations, and run them all for as long as the satelite would last, and that you need 20-30 satelites for the entire Galileo system and the math works out too.

So why isn't this happening ?

NELS currently promises LORAN-C signals until 2005 or possibly 2008, either way, no sane executive is going to bet corporate money on developing an integrated GPS+LORAN-C receiver only to arrive on the market when the signals disappear. With no receivers on the market, NELS has a hard time arguing for wasting public money transmitting signals nobody listens to. Catch-22.

It would take a long-term commitment to providing the LORAN-C signals, not 3 or 5 years but 15 or 20 years. The process could be further speeded up by getting the new EU-army to order only GPS+LORAN-C receivers in the future.

A truly evil option would be to use the byzantine eurocratic bureaucrazy to mandate that all trucks on european high-ways have a GPS+LORAN-C receiver "for the drivers safety" or to implement road-pricing to pay for greenhouse-gas emissions. (I know from experience that the eurocrats instantly can come up with something like this if need be).

In the meantime, having missed out on OMEGA by a few years, I have built my gadget.

...and for all I know, that may turn out to be the last LORAN-C receiver in Europe.


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