Inter-agency financing debate could delay progress on loran

 - October 9, 2006, 1:59 PM

They say that politics makes for strange bedfellows. So, it seems, does loran, which has recently been recognized by four quite disparate groups: the U.S. Congress, the government of France, the telecommunications industry and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). But in Washington, inter-agency budget struggles cloud further progress with the system.

Congress has been a long-time supporter of loran, authorizing almost $140 million over the years for modernizing the system to the new eLoran (for enhanced) standards. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has written the House Appropriations Committee that “the modernization of loran has indeed been a wise and economic investment in the interest of taxpayers and is consistent with our national goals to protect our citizens today and in the future…This initiative deserves the Committee’s continuing support because the modernization effort is a national asset of inestimable value.”

On July 1, at a government-sponsored “GNSS/loran Information Day” conference in Paris, the French Ministry of Defense is to state formally its commitment to loran as a strategic asset and confirm its support for the system until at least 2015, in partnership with other European nations that host loran transmitters.

International Support for Loran

In preliminary documentation, conference organizers noted the benefits of operating hybrid navigation systems employing both GNSS and loran. The documents stated that recent studies leading to the development of Europe’s Radio Navigation Plan showed that of 137 European applications that employ GPS “barely 40 would remain operational in the case of the loss of GPS and its augmentations.” U.S., European and Asian manufacturers were to exhibit and brief GPS/loran hybrid systems, which automatically switch to loran in the event of GPS loss.

Recent meetings of Bell, Verizon, Sprint, Qwest and other telecommunications organizations have focused on the potential vulnerability of the nation’s critical infrastructure, which currently depends solely on GPS for timing and frequency synchronization. Unlike loran, GPS meets the industry’s stringent Stratum I time and frequency specifications. Loran spokesmen report that independent U.S. and UK tests have verified that eLoran exceeds the Stratum 1 frequency synchronization standards, and state that the system will also meet the industry’s timing criteria, thereby providing a full future backup to GPS.

NATCA president John Carr also highlighted the redundancy of loran in Congressional testimony in April before the House subcommittee on aviation. Carr explained, “The current VOR network has served our national aviation system well. However, the limitations on service range result in costly ground-based infrastructure, and the radio-signal-based technology limits the airway structure. Other technologies, such as loran, can provide adequate redundancy and back up a space-based system such as GPS at a much lower cost than sustaining the existing VOR network.” (Carr omitted to mention that Rockwell Collins, for example, has already developed and flown a multimode GPS/loran receiver.)

Program Funding

An industry source told AIN that the several-year modernization and upgrade program for all U.S. loran stations is now complete, but the question of who should pay for their ongoing annual operating costs has become a bureaucratic dogfight between the FAA and the U.S. Coast Guard, both of which claim lack of funds.

The two agencies were once part of the Department of Transportation, where such differences would be settled internally. But after 9/11, the Coast Guard became part of the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS). No one in Washington seems prepared to guess how this debate will end, but the source described the amount of money involved–currently estimated to be around $25 million per year, falling to $15 million when unmanned automatic operation is introduced–as “chicken feed” compared with the DOT’s budget or the DHS’s massive resources.

There has also been no official statement about the disposition of a two-year FAA study of loran as a GPS back-up system. Released in November, the study demonstrated that the system met the contiguous-U.S.-wide availability, integrity and RNP 0.3 accuracy demanded of a backup. As a result, and noting the growing overseas interest in hybrid GNSS/loran equipment, some industry observers have expressed concern that, as with several other emerging technologies, the U.S. may be losing its former leadership position in the international marketplace.