Space: Russian Satellite Navigation System Fades Away


June 10, 2024: Once more, the Russian GLONASS is in trouble. The problem is a familiar one, too many GLONASS satellites are ending their service lives, usually seven years, and Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, does not have the money to replace all of the GLONASS satellites. The cash shortage means the program to build improved GLONASS satellites, like GLONASS-K, which is the first GLONASS satellite that is unpressurized and weighs much less at 750 kg while also having a longer service life of ten years. The current GLONASS-M weighs 1,450 kg and has a service life of seven years.

Currently most of the 24 GLONASS satellites in service are past their seven year service lives and, as expected, operating erratically, and starting to fail. Maintaining the worldwide GLONASS satellite network does not have a high priority because Russian personal, commercial, and military satellite navigation users have long used satellite navigation equipment that contained GLONASS and American GPS receivers. This combination provides more accurate location information and a more reliable system because the two satellite systems contain about fifty satellites.

Keeping GLONASS active with a full constellation of 24 satellites with the latest technology is expensive and used to depend on a steady supply of high-tech components only available from the United States and its allies. Imports of those are blocked by Western sanctions for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Recently China has also become a major supplier of electronics needed for navigation satellites. Russia has the option to buy the components it used to obtain from Western countries. Depending on China for components does not solve the fundamental problem that Russia does not have the money to maintain GLONASS. Since the American GPS system began operating in 1993, several other similar systems have appeared. GLONASS went online in 2011 and the Chinese Beidou came online in 2020, at the same time as the European Galileo system. Creating and maintaining these global systems is expensive and only the United States and China have been able to finance continuous operation and upgrades. Galileo, which is paid for by a coalition of nations, has had problems getting coalition members to provide the needed funds. Russia tried to compete but ran out of money.

Multiple global positioning satellite systems increase the accuracy and reliability of the signals, as well as provide redundancy and interoperability in case of disruption of service. Multiple systems can also create problems involving spectrum congestion, signal interference, and coordination complications.

By 2020 it was believed that current anti-jamming efforts were sufficient to keep American military GPS use viable for a while. That was optimistic because improvements in GPS jamming and spoofing technology were introduced more rapidly than expected. Since GPS disruption it has become increasingly obvious that Russia has been regularly jamming or spoofing GPS signals, mainly to hide the exact location equipment that allows GPS tracking. In the last five years there have been thousands of incidents where Russia has been jamming or spoofing satellite navigation signals used by the American GPS, Chinese Beidou, Europe’s Galileo and Russian GLONASS when used by foreigners. Most of this activity was not obvious jamming but the more difficult to detect spoofing. Russia used this to conceal the true location of key Russian government officials and Russian military units. The spoofing was particularly common for Russian military forces in Ukraine and Syria. Spoofing replaced the actual satellite signal with a false one that rendered smart bombs or planned attacks on targets inaccurate. Spoofing can introduce false signals gradually and sometimes delay a navigation system's realization that it is being deceived. That’s one function of INS (Inertial Navigation System), to act as a monitor for GPS as well as a backup.

Current INS tech relies on receiving an accurate GPS location initially and periodically thereafter to keep both GPS and INS location data in sync. GPS depends on continuous satellite signals to operate and the INS is only used to step in and replace GPS when its satellite signal becomes temporarily too weak, or absent. When an accurate GPS signal is achieved, INS goes back into standby mode. Spoofing can now mimic these momentary disruptions and evade detection as a false signal by the INS, which is completely self-contained. This is sometimes a problem for American guided weapons sent to Ukraine that do not have the latest anti-jamming tech installed.

American INS researchers are not the only ones seeking an INS that is accurate and persistent enough to replace GPS for extended periods. INS has long suffered from the inability to provide as accurate a location as satellite navigation systems as the gyroscope and acceleration capabilities now performed by microelectronics of the chip-based INS cannot maintain as continuously precise location as the space satellite-based system can. This is no longer seen as an insurmountable problem, nor is the large cost-difference between GPS and INS tech. Israel apparently feels it is closer to a solution than anyone else.

Meanwhile, spoofing satellite navigation systems has become more popular and practical because it does not require expensive or high-tech equipment. While American weapons and military navigation systems have a backup in the form of unjammable INS systems, these are useless if the spoofing is not detected. American systems are supposed to detect spoofing and revert to INS, but the Americans do not disclose details of how these systems work in order to make it difficult for spoofing systems to be modified to be less detectable. That is one reason why the U.S. has not released detailed information on spoofing incidents because some of them may have evaded the INS spoofing detection tech.

To further complicate the issue there have also been instances where mandatory AIS (Automatic Identification System) transponders that all large ships must carry are more frequently reporting instances of getting no GPS signal at all. Large ships usually carry two AIS units, in case one malfunctions so AIS failure can be ruled out as a cause. Something outside the ship is manipulating the GPS signal. This demonstrates how it is possible to deceive the unjammable INS and new INS systems are sought that will eliminate that risk by replacing GPS most of the time.

The new INS technology has attracted a lot of attention in the military where backups are always appreciated because when equipment fails in combat, or for commercial users like aircraft or ships, it’s literally a matter of life or death. Meanwhile, the U.S. is building and testing more compact GPS anti-jamming systems for smaller 200 kg UAVs. This is part of a program to equip all American UAVs, even the smallest ones, with more secure GPS. While all UAVs can be flown by the operator, the GPS makes it a lot easier for the operator to keep track of exactly where his UAV is at all times, and sometimes the UAV is programmed to simply patrol between a series of GPS coordinates. If the GPS jams or fails, the operator can usually use the video feed to find landmarks on the ground and bring the UAV back to where it can be seen and landed. Other UAVs have a failsafe system for the GPS. When it is no longer available the UAV turns around and heads back in the general direction of the operator. This is better than just allowing the GPS-less UAV keep flying until it runs out of fuel and crashes somewhere,

GPS reliability threats are coming from a few suppliers like Russia, China, and North Korea. These nations have developed all manner of GPS jamming technology, and over the last decade it has become increasingly obvious that these nations were using new GPS spoofing technology to conceal the true location of senior personnel and mobile combat units.

Developers and users of GPS jamming gear tend to keep quiet about what they do because this sort of thing is illegal in peacetime, especially when civilians experience GPS disruptions themselves. When the United States tests military GPS jamming, it does so at sea or in remote areas and warns nearby civilians who might encounter GPS problems to be aware of the tests and act accordingly. This warning policy has been in use for decades because of the growing number of new electronic equipment designs that could cause problems for civilians if the disruptive effect extended farther than expected.

Other nations are not as secretive in complaining and often the culprit is Russia. In 2018 Finland and Norway went public with their accusations that Russia deliberately jammed GPS signals in northern Finland and Norway from a location near the Russian military bases in the Kola Peninsula on the Barents Sea. The jamming took place as NATO held its largest training exercise since the Cold War ended in 1991. Russia denied any responsibility even though they are known to possess long-range jammers for GPS and other signals. Norway said they had tracked the jammer to a specific location but, when Russia refused to admit any involvement, Norway refused to explain how they tracked the signal because that would provide Russia with information on Norwegian EW (Electronic Warfare) equipment that might be useful to them.

China is seeking to monetize its Beidou satellite navigation system. Beidou is the Chinese version of American GPS. Beidou finally became fully operational, providing worldwide coverage, in January 2020. There are three competing systems: GPS, GLONASS and Galileo. The full Beidou network was open for business as a world-wide service in early 2020. The American GPS has been operational since 1978 while the Russian GLONASS achieved that status in 1995. Unfortunately, Russia had problems, mostly financial, in keeping GLONASS operational. The European Galileo became operational worldwide in 2020. Each of these systems cost about $10 billion to create and get into service. The American GPS cost $12 billion, mainly because it has been around for so long.

China is determined to do what none of the other three satnav systems have done; become profitable. China has not revealed how they expect to do that and the other three major satnav providers remain silent on the profitability issue. Currently the main reason for building a satnav system is national prestige and an alternative to dependence on the Americans, or any single satnav provider.

China has also invested heavily in trying to obtain favorable press coverage for Beidou and somehow establish it as a preferred satnav service. That has cost over half a billion dollars but has not created any acceptance of Beidou as a superior satnav provider. China has a long-range plan for Beidou that includes adding new features and somehow achieving market dominance by 2040. China likes to announce long range goals like this, then quietly forget about it when the promised future never arrives.

Meanwhile, Chinese state-controlled media have provided a global audience with unprecedented details of this Chinese technological effort. People got their first experience with Beidou in late 2012 when the first few satellites were made available to anyone with a Beidou receiver. China expected Beidou to become a major competitor for the existing global navigation systems, at least with civilian users. China made it clear its initial goal was to grab a major share of the satnav market from the original U.S GPS system and do it by 2030. Progress has been slow so far.

The reality is that China has had a difficult time getting Beidou fully operational. By 2020 worldwide Beidou service was available and the rest of the world was not impressed. Beidou incorporates the best features of the GLONASS and Galileo systems, as well as items planned for the next generation American GPS satellites. With all that, no one has found a way to make a profit, at least not directly. There are plenty of ideas but no one has yet turned any of those ideas into cash. Moreover, there are disputes between the Beidou, Galileo, and GLONASS organizations over who should use what frequencies. Since GPS got into service first no one is contesting the frequencies GPS uses, but the three other players have some problems.

The success of the original GPS satnav system has generated all this competition. But so far these other efforts have found the work much more difficult than expected. A European consortium went forward with Galileo despite growing costs and technical problems. Initially Galileo was to be funded with private money. But the costs climbed beyond the most optimistic estimates of future income, so now Galileo is being paid for with tax dollars, as was GPS and the competing Russian and Chinese systems.

Galileo came about because the Europeans didn't like being dependent on an American system and didn't believe the Russians would be able to keep their GLONASS system viable. Galileo became operational because the European nations were willing to pay for a system that anyone could use without charge. Dual GPS and Galileo receivers cost about 20 percent more than GPS only receivers. Having two separate sets of signals makes for more reliable and accurate receivers. Also, the way Galileo is being set up will provide improved reliability in higher latitudes and in built-up areas.

GLONASS was at full strength in 1996, shortly after the Cold War ended. But the end of the Cold War in 1991 meant the end of the regular financing for GLONASS. Maintaining the system required launching replacement satellites every 5-7 years. By the end of 2002, only seven GLONASS satellites were still operational. However, the Russian economy recovered and provided funds for a series of launches in 2003 that increased the number of active satellites to twelve. That went to 18 by the end of 2007 and Russia had 24 GLONASS satellites in orbit by 2011 with the system again fully operational by 2012. As a result, GLONASS was the first real competitor for GPS. However, GLONASS was not completely functional until 2016 because of delays in building all the ground control stations.

The money for GLONASS is coming from a Russian government that does not want to be dependent on the American controlled GPS system. But the money is only there because of high oil prices. Most GLONASS receivers in use are actually combined GPS/GLONASS receivers. Russia will have to put billions of dollars into GLONASS over the next few years to keep the system fully operational and then spend even more money to maintain the satellite network. The costs of the Ukraine war are consuming the investment capital needed to maintain Russia’s civilian infrastructure, including GLONASS, its railroad system and oil production. GLONASS is widely used in conjunction with GPS. In other words, many systems, including cell phones that already used GPS, added GLONASS and Galileo to provide better coverage and fewer instances where the signal was unavailable.

Beidou is a more restricted system. Services available to anyone are less accurate than other systems but Beidou also has a more accurate military messaging mode that is only available to the Chinese and Pakistani military. China continues trying to monetize its GPS service, which really would make it unique compared to the others, but few nations are willing to pay for a military grade satnav service provided by China. It will take more than a multi-billion dollar propaganda effort to change global suspicion of Chinese motives and reliability in such matters.

One of the reasons why there are so many global positioning satellite systems is that they have both civilian and military applications. GPS was originally developed by the US Department of Defense to provide precise navigation and timing for its armed forces and allies. GPS also became widely used by civilians for various purposes, such as mapping, geocaching, tracking, and recreation. Similarly, GLONASS, Beidou, and Galileo have dual-use capabilities that can enhance the economic, scientific, and security interests of their respective countries or regions. For example, GLONASS can support Russian oil and gas exploration, Beidou can facilitate China's Belt and Road Initiative, and Galileo can improve European autonomy and resilience in the face of external threats or disruptions.

Use of multiple global positioning satellite systems can also increase the accuracy and reliability of the signals, as well as provide redundancy and interoperability in case of failures or attacks. Having too many systems can also pose challenges, such as spectrum congestion, signal interference, and coordination difficulties. Moreover, some countries may use their systems for strategic or political purposes, such as denying access to rivals or asserting territorial claims. Therefore, it is important to establish international norms and regulations for the peaceful and responsible use of global positioning satellite systems.




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