Congress and President Say Nyet to Russian Navigation System

NEWS ANALYSIS: A little noticed provision in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 could have a profound impact on how you navigate by making it less precise.

Buried deep within the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014, signed by President Barack Obama on Dec. 28, is Section 1602, which contains a provision that prohibits the president from approving construction of a global navigation satellite system ground-monitoring station that belongs to or is controlled by a foreign government. Before you start yawning, it pays to go a little deeper.

This section, which is a very late addition to the NDAA, is the result of a request to the U.S. Department of State by the government of Russia to place up to six navigation-monitoring stations in the United States. These monitoring stations would keep track of how accurate the Russian equivalent to the Global Positioning System (GPS), known as GLONASS, is and then provide corrections to improve accuracy. This works by checking the atomic clocks on each satellite against a time standard and then uploading the corrections up to twice per day if needed.

GPS, which is operated by the U.S. Air Force in partnership with the Department of Commerce, has a similar means of ensuring accuracy. The accuracy of GPS is a point of pride for the U.S. Department of Defense, which guards it jealously.

By now you're probably asking what's wrong with Russia's GLONASS system being as accurate as possible. After all, if you read the fine print in the specifications of your GPS and other devices with location services, you'll see that they work with both GPS and GLONASS. More accuracy means your phone has a better shot at knowing where it is.

To the Pentagon, however, this is a potential threat. After all, if your phone knows where it is, then so does some device with a nefarious purpose such as a cruise missile. This is why GPS signals were intentionally degraded when the service was first launched. There was a time when finding yourself within 30 meters or so was unlikely. The only reason that GPS is more accurate now is because the Air Force stopped limiting its accuracy. But the ability to degrade it remains, which means that the government has the ability to make your GPS useless whenever it wishes.

And this provides a look at the big worry about navigation. After all, even if you can limit the accuracy of GPS, you have no control over GLONASS.

But there are other things Congress worried about. One is that the monitoring stations could be used as secret surveillance sites. Another is that success for GLONASS would somehow diminish the success of GPS, meaning that what has essentially been paranoid marketing has become law in the NDAA.

To overcome the limitations, the president would have to convince the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence that the monitoring stations are OK and don't pose a threat. In addition, there are a number of other conditions that boil down to requiring that the United States build and operate the monitoring stations for the Russians. Chances of all of this happening are pretty slim.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...