Space: GLONASS Gets A Foreign User


September 12, 2010: The Russia-Indian BrahMos anti-ship missile now uses Russian GLONASS satellite navigation, in addition to the more common American GPS. But GLONASS does not yet cover the entire planet, but will soon, again. Two years ago, Russia thought it had its GPS clone, GLONASS, ready for prime time. Three more GLONASS satellites had just gone into orbit. These, in addition to those put up a few months earlier, meant there were 20 GLONASS birds up there. Russia planned to have the system operational by 2010. That has now fallen apart.

Now there are 22 GLONASS satellite in orbit, but only sixteen of them are working. That's particularly discouraging, because 18 of the GLONASS birds must be operational to provide worldwide service. GLONASS seems to be cursed, because every time the system is about to reach full operations, something bad happens. Two years ago, it was a batch of six satellites ready for launch, that were discovered to have some serious technical flaws (as have some already in orbit). Worse yet, the rest of the world had grown tired of waiting. Manufacturers of devices that use satellite navigation, overwhelmingly prefer to use good old, reliable, GPS. So Russia is installing GLONASS in a lot of its military equipment, along with GPS receivers. The two systems provide a backup for each other. The Indians have been persuaded to install GLONASS receivers in several types of equipment.

Russia's answer to GPS, GLONASS, was at full strength (24 satellites) in 1995, shortly after the Cold War ended in 1991. But the end of the Cold War meant the end of the regular financing for GLONASS. Maintaining the system required launching replacement satellites every 5-7 years. There was no money for that in the 1990s. By the end of 2002, only seven GLONASS birds were still operational. However, a series of launches in 2003 increased the number of active satellites to twelve, and it went to 18 by the end of 2007, and it was planned to have the full 24 birds up by 2009. Now that looks like it is going to happen next year. Maybe.

Over the last decade, Russia has developed satellite guided bombs, like the American JDAM, and is offering them for export. The Russian guided bombs use either GLONASS or GPS.