The National Airspace System (NAS) is comprised of the airspace, navigation facilities, and airports of the U.S. along with associated technologies, services, policies, procedures, and personnel. A persistent and growing threat to the safety and security of the U.S. aviation system lies in cyberspace. Protecting critical assets in a networked world is difficult enough, let alone in a highly complex and integrated “system-of-systems” such as the U.S. aviation system. As innovation proliferates and technology and capabilities rapidly evolve, however, so does the industry’s threat profile. Replete with numerous information and communications technologies, the system and associated infrastructure will continue to be a potential target for large-scale cyber attacks. Integrating critical infrastructure systems with information technology networks provides significantly less isolation from the outside world than predecessor systems, thereby creating a greater need to secure these systems from remote, external threats.
World War II Era Technology
It is difficult to sugarcoat the condition of America’s civil aviation infrastructure, including the air traffic control (ATC) system itself. This critical national asset utilizes World War II-era surveillance radar technology as the basis for safe separation of aircraft flying at 500 miles per hour. Position fixes are updated every 12 seconds due to the physical rotation of the radar dish, and over this time aircraft can travel a mile or more in distance. Safe separation today dictates that aircraft must fly five miles apart as a result of these delays. The FAA inventory of radios supporting air-to-ground voice communications is between 40 and 50 years old, while switches used to communicate between pilots and air traffic controllers use 1980’s technologies. Aircraft follow inefficient routes to their destinations in order to stay in touch with various ground-based control centers, while terrain or altitude may cause aircraft to disappear from radar altogether.
For these reasons, the current Trump Administration has identified ATC reform as one of its signature issues. With strong opposition from general aviation, consumer groups, a significant number of state and local governments, some security experts, numerous liberal and conservative think tanks, and many members of Congress, corporatization could run into severe headwinds.
In the meantime FAA infrastructure modernization needs urgent attention. By treating the physical ATC system as eligible infrastructure, and applying corporate best practices, private capital, innovative financing tools and public private partnerships, desperately needed progress should become visible quickly, and at reduced cost to the American taxpayer. We refer to this alternative as the FAA P3 ATC Modernization Plan (P3-AMP). A detailed blueprint for P3-AMP will be released shortly by ADS Infrastructure and its other partners for public review, and can accomplish infrastructure modernization with proven efficiency.