Washington Should Reconsider Russian Satellite Navigation

Washington Should Reconsider Russian Satellite Navigation
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Few Americans are aware of the brewing battle between Russia and the United States over global navigational satellite systems–and Washington would like to keep it that way. When Russia’s Global Navigational Satellite System (GLONASS) became operational in 2011, the Obama administration and several congressional members characterized it as a threat to national security. This assessment is both short-sighted and misleading, at a time when heightened tensions with Russia underscore the need for pragmatic, reason-based solutions and not the politically motivated stalemating of a new Cold War. Instead, the Obama administration’s current stance presumes, unrealistically, that ignoring Russian satellites will somehow prevent them from gathering U.S. geospatial data, and it also prevents U.S. consumers from unlocking greater navigational efficiency by supplementing existing data with GLONASS systems.   

While GLONASS, like its U.S. counterpart, GPS (Global Positioning System), is rooted in its home country’s military community, the navigation system has been available for public and commercial use since 2007. The project has been a Russian government priority since Soviet scientists began developing it in the 1970s. The collapse of the Soviet Union saw the GLONASS program placed on hold in the early 1990s. President Vladimir Putin resuscitated it in 2003 with an eye toward producing a competitor to GPS. With 24 satellites in orbit, GLONASS achieved full positioning coverage of Russia in 2010 and the rest of the world in 2011. Today, the service is ubiquitous in Russia. Many regional governments require school buses and taxi drivers to use GLONASS in their vehicles to promote road safety, and Moscow levies fines for taxis that do not have some form of navigation system.  

Few outside of Eastern Europe have ever heard of GLONASS. GPS’s earlier arrival in 1995 certainly accounts for some of the lukewarm response, but Washington has played an active part in keeping it from taking root in the United States. For instance, the Obama administration slipped language into the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that effectively banned Moscow from constructing GLONASS stations on U.S. soil unless it could be proven that they were unusable for military purposes. The U.S. government, which already has 11 GPS stations placed throughout Russia, is well aware of the dual-use implications of a navigational system that can send signals to a car just as easily as it can to a missile.   

Prohibiting the placement of GLONASS stations, however, does little more than reduce signal quality for consumers with GLONASS antennas who are simply looking for an alternative to GPS. The NDAA ban on GLONASS stations is enormously ineffective as it assumes that GLONASS stations–not the satellites themselves–are the origin of potential Russian espionage. These stations simply correct signals that have already reached the United States, and there is little Washington can do to prevent Russian satellites from bouncing signals wherever their operators see fit. To be sure, a handful of GLONASS antennas and receptors already exist in the U.S. market, allowing scientists and technology enthusiasts to explore the benefits of joint GPS-GLONASS navigational input.  

Alternatives to outright bans do exist, even if satellite stations are found to be feeding military intelligence to foreign governments. Moscow demonstrated as much in June 2014 when, in response to the Obama administration’s ban on GLONASS stations inside the United States, the Kremlin announced that it was taking steps to ensure that the Washington could never use its Russia-based GPS stations for military purposes. Stopping short of declaring that GPS would cease to function on Russian territory, Moscow instead announced that it was implementing a delay in the information relayed between GPS stations and satellites, ostensibly eroding the value of positioning data for Washington’s military and intelligence communities. Both GLONASS and GPS remain operational inside Russia despite rising rhetoric and ongoing tensions between the two countries.

The Obama administration’s opposition is shortsighted, failing to recognize that other countries are developing their own global navigational systems. In addition to GPS and GLONASS, the European Union’s Galileo system, and China’s Beidou may one day achieve global coverage and offer an even greater range of services to consumers around the world. Opposing space and telecommunications cooperation with Russia is easy for Washington today amid heightened tensions over the conflict in Ukraine and myriad other foreign policy disagreements. Should it maintain its current posture, however, the United States may soon find itself fumbling to justify opposition to the Europe’s Galileo, capable of transmitting the very same military-grade data as GLONASS.

Even if it means allowing the construction of GLONASS stations on U.S. soil, the Obama administration must reconsider its opposition to GLONASS. To start, President Obama can voice support for  telecommunications giants like Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile, who have lobbied in favor of using GLONASS satellites to promote efficiency in routing emergency calls to first responders. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) originally demonstrated support for the initiative, but succumbed to pressure from Congressmen such as Representative Mike Rogers (R-AL), Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and by failing to include non-GPS options as emergency response alternatives in the February 2015 update to the Enhanced-911 (E-911) framework. The FCC’s E-911 framework is responsible for governing geolocation and emergency response services, and was last updated in 2010.    

By enabling the development of GLONASS in the U.S. market, President Obama will be doing much more than opening up new technologies to the American consumer. He is signaling to both domestic and international audiences that his administration remains committed to pragmatic policy solutions that are in the best interest of his country, and international cooperation. Moreover, a review of GLONASS policy also delineates the administration’s embrace of reason, and opposition to the type of political gamesmanship characterized much of the previous Cold War, and still risks dragging the world into a repeat scenario of the same political divisiveness of the mid- to late 20th century. 

Gary Bearden is a foreign policy professional and current Political Risk Fellow with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). He has professional and living experience in Eastern Europe, North Africa and Latin America, holds three Bachelors degrees from Ohio State University and a Master of Science in Foreign Service from Georgetown University.

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