The Global Positioning System is taken for granted these days. The military uses it for just about everything from guiding bombs to setting up rendezvous for resupplying. In the civilian world, systems powered by GPS can be found in just about every new phone or car. The system came online fully in 1995, but not before getting a brief workout during Desert Storm.
The idea for such a system stems back to 1973, when the United States was wrapping up in Vietnam and Israel was fighting for its very survival in the Yom Kippur War. The system was a fusion of technologies pushed by the various armed services — some of which dated back to before 1961’s first manned spaceflight.
One of the biggest reasons for GPS was for weapons accuracy. Back then, the goal wasn’t to create incredibly sophisticated systems, like the Joint Direct Attack Munition, but rather, according to the website for Trimble, a maker of GPS devices, it was to give nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines the means to know their position within a matter of feet. This would enable them to deliver nuclear warheads accurately. Similarly, GPS would be a key technology in turning proposals for mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles into viable weapons.
GPS was originally intended to provide accurate positioning data for ballistic missile submarines – making missiles like this UGM-133 Trident II far more accurate.
Like virtually everything about nuclear weapons and their support systems, this technology was intended to be kept within the military. The trajectory of GPS technology, though, was changed drastically during the Reagan administration. In the wake of the 1983 downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 by a Soviet Su-15 Flagon interceptor, President Reagan ordered that GPS be made available for civilian applications. Production satellites began launching in 1989 and, just six years later, we had complete global coverage.
Today, GPS is so widespread, we’re willing to drop receivers attached to conventional bombs.
(U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate Second Class Felix Garza Jr.)
Today, GPS has become almost a public utility, like electricity or water. According to the United States Coast Guard, 31 satellites are in orbit, giving troops — and civilians — a near-constant ability to know where they are.
Watch the video below to see the Air Force describe GPS over forty years ago.