Should Russia be Allowed to Install GLONASS Monitor Stations on U.S. Soil?

Should Russia be Allowed to Install GLONASS Monitor Stations on U.S. Soil?

The New York Times (NYT) carries an interesting story today about an ongoing debate within U.S. policy circles about whether to allow Russia to install monitor stations for its GLONASS navigation satellite system on U.S. soil to improve its accuracy.  The debate pits the State Department, which reportedly wants to say yes, against the U.S. defense and intelligence communities, which object to the idea.  A government advisory board on U.S. and foreign navigation satellite systems was briefed on this topic in May and no questions appear to have been raised.

GLONASS is the Russian equivalent to the U.S. GPS system.  The use of GPS is pervasive not only in the United States, but around the world and other countries are building their own systems.  GPS and GLONASS are formally called positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) satellites.   When fully operational, each system consists of a constellation of 24 satellites that provide three-dimensional (latitude, longitude, altitude) data anywhere on Earth as well as very precise timing signals.  The term Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) is used to refer to these systems generically.  In addition to the U.S. GPS and Russia’s GLONASS, two other GNSS systems are under development — China’s Beidou and Europe’s Galileo.  Japan and India are developing regional systems (QZSS and IRNSS, respectively).

The gist of the debate reported by the NYT is that the accuracy of GNSS systems depends on reference stations around the globe that detect even slight changes in each satellite’s orbit so data can be corrected and measurements kept extremely accurate.  Russia wants to emplace some of these reference, or monitor, stations on U.S. territory.  The NYT story says the State Department wants to permit Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, to build monitor stations here to “help mend the Obama administration’s relationship with the government of President Vladimir V. Putin, now at a nadir” after Russia gave asylum to Edward Snowden.  The story continues that the CIA and the Defense Department “are waging a campaign” to stop it for fear it will give Russia “a foothold on American territory that would sharpen the accuracy of Moscow’s satellite-steered weapons” and “give the Russians an opening to snoop on the United States within its borders.”   It quotes the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), as wondering “why the United States would be interested in enabling a GPS competitor, like Russian Glonass [sic], when the world’s reliance on GPS is a clear advantage to the United States on multiple levels.”

The NYT says Russian and American negotiators last met on April 25. 

A review of the minutes of the most recent (May 7-8, 2013) meeting of the National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing Advisory Board, which provides independent advice to the government about GPS/GNSS issues, found many discussions of GLONASS in a variety of contexts.   Among them was a briefing by Dave Turner, Deputy Director of the State Department’s Office of Space and Advanced Technology.  One of his slides clearly states that U.S. objectives in working with other countries’ systems is to “ensure compatibility,” “achieve interoperability,” and “promote fair competition in the global marketplace.”  Those objectives will be pursued through “bilateral and multilateral cooperation.”  According to the minutes, he told the Board that discussions with Russia on those topics “began in 1996 and currently involve the potential of hosting of GLONASS ground monitoring and laser tracking stations on U.S. territory.”  The minutes, which appear to be quite detailed, indicate no questions from or comments by Board members on that point.

The Board is chaired by James Schlesinger, who has held many high-level government jobs including Secretary of Defense and Director of the CIA and is now chairman of the MITRE Corporation.  The Board’s Vice Chair is Stanford’s Brad Parkinson, who is considered the “father” of GPS.    Its next meeting is scheduled for December 4-5, 2013 in Washington, DC.


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