Why GPS Spoofing Has Failed to Foil Yemen's Houthi Attacks on Ships in Red Sea and Gulf of Aden?

Sheba Intelligence | 2024-01-28 10:29 AM UTC


Commercial ships and warships in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden appeared to have used GPS spoofing to avoid giving their exact locations over the past few days, which saw a surge of Houthi attacks on shipping lanes.


Sheba Intelligence monitored the Houthi attacks on commercial vessels and warships from January 20 through January 25 in the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, Bab El-Mandeb, and the Gulf of Aden. It was found that none of the Houthi attacks hit the targets.


Therefore, the U.S. and the U.K. likely resorted to GPS jamming, a technique that caused the Houthi missiles to fall at least 100 meters away from the targeted ships. GPS spoofing can send people off course or say that someone is somewhere that they are not.


On January 20, the Houthis fired a missile toward a cargo ship, but it fell near Al-Hudaydah city. On January 22, they claimed an attack on the American ship Ocean Jazz in the Gulf of Aden. However, the U.S. forces denied such a claim. On January 24, the Houthis launched three missiles toward M/V Maersk Detroit. One missile fell 100 meters away from the ship, and the U.S. forces shot down the other two.


However, on January 26, the Houthi missiles precisely flew towards their targets. One target was a British oil tanker in the Gulf of Aden. The missile hit the ship, setting it on fire. The other missile was moving directly toward a U.S. war, but it was intercepted.


With the latest attacks, it can be seen the Houthi group has begun to fire missiles toward targets in a precise manner. There are different scenarios to explain this shift.


First scenario

The Houthis obtained an alternative system, possibly from Russia. The Houthis' successful operations on January 26 happened one day after the visit of Houthi spokesperson Mohammed Abdulsalam to Moscow.


Russia has the GLONASS Global Navigation Satellite System, launched in 1995, which is considered the second most accurate global system. It relies on 24 satellites in the same orbits as GPS satellites and offers a superior level of accuracy between 5 to 10 meters, compared to the GPS accuracy level of 4 to 7 metres.


Second scenario

The Houthis were able to obtain an anti-disinformation system:


  • Problems related to the possibility of jamming signals and the effect of multipath were more difficult to solve, but technology was introduced to reduce interference, the most important of which are:


  • Using smart antennas, known as CRPA Controlled Reception Pattern Antennas to transmit signals from satellites only and are blind to other sources. Thus, they prevent sources of interference from affecting them.


  • Using modern GPS receivers that provide high accuracy and good resistance to interference from ground-based jammers.

Third scenario

 The international coalition led by Britain and America has stopped using GPS spoofing because of the great dangers it causes, including:


• According to the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation, increased GPS interference "reduces the efficiency of the general aviation system and increases the burden on pilots and air traffic controllers."


• GPS jamming can cause temporary malfunctions in location-based applications.

• GPS jamming causes disturbances to the satellite navigation system and leads to false altitude readings, giving incorrect warnings to pilots that they are dangerously close to the ground.


• Widespread GPS jamming affects devices' ability to determine their exact geographic location, such as smartphones showing incorrect location data.


• GPS jamming is a double-edged sword that provides a strategic advantage in electronic warfare. At the same time, it poses serious safety challenges in the field of civil aviation.


Fourth scenario

Most of the Houthis' recent successful attacks took place southeast of Aden, at a distance between 60 and 90 nautical miles. The international coalition in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden did not likely resort to GPS jamming in this vast region, which has international routes for navigation.