Warning after Qantas flights reportedly interfered with by Chinese warships

An Australian defence expert warns the government may need to act to prevent further attacks on aircraft communication systems.

An Australian defence expert is warning the federal government to watch out for repeated communication interference after Chinese warships were suspected of messing with GPS systems on board Qantas flights.

In a note issued to pilots, Qantas confirmed some flights had experienced interference on VHF channels “purporting to represent the Chinese military,” the Guardian reported. The national carrier claimed ships off the northwest shelf of Australia are to blame for GPS jamming.

Professor Sam Drake from the Centre for Defence Engineering Research and Training at Flinders University says “unfortunately it is very easy to do”, but warned the Australian government might want to step in if the issue continues.

A Qantas plane taking off.
Qantas said some pilots had experienced an interference through VHF channels from Chinese military. Source: AAP

“In fact an amateur could do that, and GPS jammers are sold online,” he told Yahoo News Australia.

“It is illegal to transmit that GPS frequency with a fine of up to $1,000,000 or eight years in jail, according to the Australian Communications Media Authority.”

Government must mitigate further attacks

The International Federation of Airline Pilots’ Association has since confirmed the communication interference by military warships in the Pacific region, notably the South China Sea.

“In some cases, the flights were provided vectors to avoid the airspace over the warship,” it said in a statement online.

While Professor Drake suggested the Chinese military “may just have been doing some experiments” to test their own equipment against GPS protection, he explained GPS is not just used for navigation.

“It's also used for timing in lots and lots of systems,” he said. “So banking systems will use GPS and mobile phone towers use GPS for timing, so the Australian government will be aware of this. If it's ongoing and persistent, they may want to mitigate it.”

The note to pilots from Qantas.
In a note to staff, Qantas urged pilots to ignore any radio interference. Source: News.com.au

Pilots told to ignore radio interference

While Qantas added that the intrusion hadn’t caused any safety concerns for its fleet, it urged pilots to fly through possible radio interference and attacks on GPS systems.

“Most pilots would be quite used to GPS in the same way we're used to it in the car, but in the same way, if the GPS fails on the car, nothing's going to happen,” Professor Drake said. “They’re not going to lose control and they have backup navigation systems.”

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