Book Review: GPS Declassified


[Editor’s note: The purpose of the Chesapeake Chapter is to foster the definition, understanding, and practice of world class systems engineering in industry, academia, and government. In light of that goal, every month at our dinner meeting we have a drawing for the latest in Systems Engineering literature. This book report is the result of the reviewer winning the door prize after the 2019-06-19: The History of GPS Spoofing lecture by Dana Goward.]

GPS Declassified: From Smart Bombs to Smartphones

by Richard D. Easton and Rick W. Sturdevant; 2013; Hardcover; 328 pages

Reviewer: Charles R. Swain

For the average public, GPS just magically appeared when phones became smart and it continues to remain some magic blue dot on a map. Some, such as my younger self as I was home from school with chickenpox, were introduced to this voodoo DoD magic during the first Gulf War when amazing (grainy black and white with redaction blocks all over the place) bombing footage was linked to ‘GPS smart bombs’ in passing. The author continuously reminds us of GPS’ clouded past and identifies some of the contemporaneous perceptions through GPS’ history. For example, GPS was described in Gulf War press reports as a spy satellite that actively knows where you are. It is better known with our 20/20 in hindsight views now, but there was a tremendous amount of behind the scenes work well before the public even was aware of GPS and continues even now with OCX and other secretive advancements. These behind the scenes stories are what the author wants to tell.

 The first half of GPS Declassified tells of the competing narratives related to both the inter- and intra-service rivalries in the DoD as well as bureaucratic battles and quiet technological achievements. The author does a fantastic job of balancing narratives and developing a very readable story line. I found myself skimming some in the second half where the book describes the civilian achievements and in-fighting in detail, but other readers might appreciate this half more. The stories tell of the amazing technological achievements and benefits to all humankind. There is much to learn and remain curious about GPS as well as all location-based services that rely on GPS-like technologies as they continue to transform our world and GPS Declassified helps enliven this.

By the way, being an APLer, I have to point out that a nod is given to APL’s initial contribution (not much to our ongoing contributions) while more is given to NRL’s Timation and Minitrack. In addition, there is a little shade thrown at APL to highlight the APL-NRL rivalry. It should be noted that one author shares the last name with the principal inventor of the NRL’s GPS precursor and I’m affiliated with APL. Also it is a great read in the context of the Apollo 11 landing and the space race by reminding us that the race is not finished yet and maybe the race truly was for human kind more so than just the US vs USSR.

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