China and Russia Cooperate on Rival to GPS

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China and Russia Cooperate on Rival to GPS

Integration between China and Russia’s satellite networks will have major implications for the United States.

China and Russia Cooperate on Rival to GPS
Credit: Depositphotos

On September 17, Russia’s largest, state-owned news agency, TASS, reported that state space corporation Roscosmos will install a satellite ground-monitoring station in Shanghai this year. Additional reports claimed China will place equivalent stations in Russia. This would be the first time either China or Russia allows another country to place monitoring stations on its soil.

The ground stations are the latest development in China and Russia’s deepening space cooperation. The two countries have been pursuing integration of their satellite systems since 2014 and collaborating on other projects aimed at countering U.S. influence, including a planned lunar base and missile early warning system. Individually, both countries are developing and testing counterspace weapons capable of imperiling U.S. satellites.

Although the United States remains the only country to have sent humans beyond low Earth orbit, budget reductions over the past decade have caused NASA to rely on Russian spacecraft for transit and allow China to take the lead in hypersonics development. China and Russia also boast the only space programs other than the United States’ to have completed crewed space missions, and Beijing and Moscow could both stand to gain from combining China’s deep pockets with Russia’s technological expertise.

Space collaborations between the two countries have both political and strategic consequences for the United States, which often fall along three lines. First, they seek to pull other countries away from the U.S. sphere of influence and toward Russia and China. Second, they afford China and Russia increased access to data and intelligence. Third, they limit U.S. power projection capabilities, which are critical for maintaining alliance commitments around the world.

Integration between China and Russia’s satellite networks checks all three boxes (and is much more feasible than a lunar base). Here’s what’s going on with the integration and what it means for the United States.

What Is Known About China-Russia Satellite Integration?

Russia’s GLONASS and China’s Beidou are global navigation satellite systems used for both civil and military purposes. Their primary competitors are the United States’ GPS and the European Union’s Galileo, which are themselves somewhat interoperable.

In January 2014, China and Russia established the “China Russia Commission on Important Strategic Satellite Navigation Cooperation.” According to the official Beidou website, the high-level commission met six times between 2014 and 2019 and established working groups on “compatibility and interoperability, augmentation and station construction, monitoring and assessment, and joint applications.”

In 2018, Moscow and Beijing reported that a monitoring and assessment services platform for Beidou and GLONASS was operational. The following year, the two countries released a jointly developed multi-frequency radio frequency chip designed to support both constellations.

Globally, Beidou leads in terms of number of satellites, with 35 compared to GPS’ 31 and GLONASS’ roughly two dozen. In an implicit challenge to GPS, the director general of Roscosmos has claimed Beidou and GLONASS’ “complementariness would result in [the] biggest and most powerful competitor to any navigation system.”

Recent announcements highlight Russia placing GLONASS stations in China and China installing Beidou stations in Russia. According to Roscosmos Deputy Director for International Cooperation General Sergey Saveliev, “active work” on this project has begun. While initial agreements for placing GLONASS monitoring stations in China were reached in 2014, Russia has since stepped up its efforts to create a global network of ground-monitoring stations.

Why Are the Monitoring Stations Important?

Ground-monitoring stations improve the accuracy and performance of satellite systems, allowing satellites to determine geographic position within feet. The stations track and collect satellite navigation signals and record discrepancies between actual and expected positions to allow for corrections.

From an operational angle, larger and more spread-out networks of ground-monitoring stations would allow Beidou and GLONASS to function more effectively on a global scale. GPS has at least 16 monitoring stations across every populated continent. China has a completed station in Argentina and agreements to construct ground stations in Iran, Thailand, and several other partner countries as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. Russia has ground stations in Brazil and South Africa and plans to install more in Brazil, Indonesia, India, and Angola.

Geopolitically, Beijing and Moscow’s willingness to allow the other country’s monitoring stations on their soil demonstrates how highly both value cooperation in space. It also shows their shared confidence, as hosting a foreign monitoring station creates vulnerabilities for both the supplier and host country. On the supplier’s end, ground stations are vulnerable to cyber espionage, exploitations, and attacks. On the host’s end, ground stations are a counterintelligence and sovereignty concern, which led the United States to refuse Russia’s request in 2013 to place GLONASS stations in the U.S.

In terms of competition with the United States, GLONASS and Beidou expanding their coverage and accuracy might erode GPS’ advantage globally. If fewer countries relied on GPS, it could cost the U.S. in influence and wealth (GPS services are estimated as adding $75 billion per year to the economy). Beijing and Moscow would be able to offer countries access to space in return for ground station hosting and in doing so strengthen their global reach. For example, Russia installed ground-monitoring stations in Brazil to aid Roscosmos satellites and offered Brazil research access to the stations in exchange.

The increased accuracy afforded by the stations is also valuable from a military perspective.

How Satellites Might Factor Into a Military Conflict With the United States.

Both the GLONASS and Beidou satellite constellations are used for navigation. Similar to navigation in a car, satellite signals guide aircraft carriers, submarines, and other weapons platforms. Satellites are also used for reconnaissance or tracking other states’ assets and for targeting or guiding unmanned systems, which might be anything from a drone to an intercontinental ballistic missile.

In a scenario from my research with Dr. Daryl Press modeling a possible China-U.S. conflict in the Western Pacific, satellites feature prominently. Satellites from China’s Beidou constellation orbit the Earth constantly, searching for, among other things, U.S. aircraft carriers. In the event of a regional conflict, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan for example, a primary source of U.S. airpower would be these carriers. In this scenario, after having used satellites to locate U.S. carriers, China would then seek to strike the carriers with cruise or ballistic missiles, both of which require satellite signals for targeting.

Advancements in China and Russia’s jamming and spoofing capabilities, practices that “blind” adversaries’ satellites, threaten the effectiveness and security of U.S. forces around the world by compromising GPS’ signal integrity, thereby affecting military navigation and limiting the ability to locate and target enemy assets.

What Are the Implications for U.S. Strategy?

If the monitoring stations go forward as planned, China and Russia are signaling mutual trust by prioritizing interoperability and cooperation over sovereignty concerns. While the partnership between GLONASS and Beidou has so far focused on integration for civil purposes, more satellites and improved accuracy from the ground stations would also strengthen the systems’ military performance.

In response to growing Chinese and Russian capabilities, the United States recently launched its fifth GPS III satellite, the next generation of satellite designed for greater accuracy and resistance to jamming and spoofing. The satellites are reportedly eight times more resilient that their predecessors, but analysts disagree on whether the enhanced resistance is sufficient to protect again electronic warfare with some advocating a GPS alternative. The U.S. intelligence community assessed in 2021 that “Beijing is working to match or exceed U.S. capabilities in space,” but less attention has been given to countering China’s “space diplomacy.”

China and Russia’s plans to place additional ground stations in third countries is both an instance of space diplomacy and a security concern for the United States. This step could make Beidou and GLONASS more attractive global navigation satellite systems for host countries, incentivizing cooperation with China and Russia. On the security side, any technologies requiring satellite signal could become vulnerable to Chinese and Russian data collection, an issue of particular concern with Beidou, which uses a two-way signal that also transmits the user’s position.

Bilateral cooperation between China and Russia is here to stay but unlikely to result in seamless, broad-based collaboration. Full integration of GLONASS and Beidou is improbable, but progress with the ground stations indicates that China-Russia satellite integration is worth watching.