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.
Congress and President Say Nyet to Russian Navigation System
But the fact is that the big concerns of the authors of this last-minute amendment to the NDAA are misplaced. As the U.S. clearly demonstrated in the First Gulf War, you don’t need GPS to give weapons extreme accuracy. If you saw the videos of that conflict, you’ll recall the uncanny ability of cruise missiles to find, and then fly through, specific windows in government buildings. This took place before GPS was fully operational, so the navigation took place using something called a “map.”
The surveillance concern is even more bogus because it assumes that the proposed monitoring stations are somehow unique in their ability to house spying equipment. In reality, you can put surveillance equipment anywhere—from a hotel in the suburbs to an office building downtown to the back of a pickup truck disguised as landscaping equipment. Gathering radio signals is no longer a secret to any intelligence service.
What’s really going on here is something else entirely. First, Congress can’t resist the opportunity to tweak Russian President Vladimir Putin, and since they know that GLONASS is a priority for Putin, this is the Washington version of “Nyah, Nyah, Nyah” that you might have heard in grade school.
The fear that GLONASS might somehow diminish the prestige of the United States by diminishing GPS is simply not supported by reality. In the long run, better positioning for everyone is the tide that raises all boats. It’s good for business and thus good for the economy.
And besides, if you want to screw up any plans by the Russians, all you need to do is make GPS less accurate on a random basis. It’ll drive everyone nuts trying to figure out what service they can trust. If you’re lucky, people depending on both services will assume that it’s GLONASS that just made them go the wrong way on the interstate and will start blaming the Russians for their troubles.