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Russia’s Alternative to GPS Satellites Is Outdated and Outnumbered

(Bloomberg) -- Vladimir Putin needs better satellites.

Most Read from Bloomberg

While Ukraine has successfully deployed precision rockets guided by orbiting US spacecraft to hit targets deep behind the front lines – and has also used Elon Musk’s cutting-edge Starlink satellite constellation to stay connected to the internet — Russia is stuck with an aging network that has hindered its ability to use smart weapons.

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The Russian constellation of two dozen positioning, navigation and timing satellites — called Glonass — dates back to the 1980s, when the USSR created it as a rival to the US-run Global Positioning System. Today, that American constellation of about 30 GPS satellites, all controlled by the Pentagon, is essential for everything from Google Maps to commercial airliners.

For the Kremlin, a homegrown global navigation satellite system offers protection against US efforts to deny Russia’s military from accessing GPS for precision-guided missiles. But while Russia has updated its satellites over the years, Glonass isn’t as accurate as GPS, and that’s having an impact on its war effort.

With Glonass’s signals less reliable and precise for satellite-guided weapons, Putin’s generals have resorted to workarounds, including a massive new 3,300 pound (1,500 kilogram) bomb designed to use brute size to compensate for inadequate technology, said Bruce McClintock, a senior policy researcher at RAND Corp. and the lead for its Space Enterprise Initiative.

“One of the reasons the Russians need to create a bomb that big is their inability to get accurate munitions,” he said. Glonass’s shortcomings have “resulted in significant inaccuracy in their advanced weaponry.”

Russia also uses less-secure commercial-grade GPS signals in frequent attacks on civilian targets.

“All the Russian systems use satellite navigation chips, which combine Glonass signals and GPS signals,” said Pavel Luzin, a senior fellow with the Jamestown Foundation and a researcher on space policy. “Sure, there are commercial/consumer-grade GPS chips, not the military-grade ones, but that’s enough to attack big stationary targets like apartment buildings, hospitals, power plants, shopping malls and ports.”

Read More: Russia’s Space Program Reels After Putin’s Ukraine Invasion

A long-delayed effort to fix the constellation is coming too late to help in Ukraine.

Russia last month launched a rocket carrying a Glonass-K2 satellite, the first installment in a network upgrade projected to cost 484 billion rubles ($5 billion), according to a Janes report.

First announced for 2018, the launch date kept slipping before liftoff finally took place in early August. It’s the first in what needs to be a years-long effort to improve Glonass. More than half of the constellation’s satellites are already too old, according to Luzin, and with even more satellites approaching their use-by date, Russia will need 20 new ones by the end of the decade, he said.

“They are able to produce and orbit just one or two every year because they don’t have the electronics,” said Luzin. “Their biggest problem is how to save the system itself.”

Glonass satellites, about 19,000 km (11,800 miles) above the Earth, aren’t as good as competitors, according to Craig Roberts, a senior lecturer in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, whose research compares Glonass with GPS and two newer networks, China’s BeiDou and the European Union’s Galileo.

The Russian network has poorer quality of both control stations on the ground and atomic clocks in space, he said, making their measurements less precise.

“Everyone knows that Glonass is the worst,” he said. “If I’m measuring a position and use all four constellations to process the same data, Glonass is at the bottom of the pile.”

Russian space agency Roscosmos did not respond to a request for comment.

Even as Russia tries to overcome Glonass shortcomings, Ukraine can use US-provided codes designed to allow access to more secure military-grade GPS signals, said Roberts.

With the US having unlocked its satellites for Ukraine, the country’s army has taken advantage of GPS-guided weapons such as Lockheed Martin Corp.’s Himars rocket launchers to attack Russian positions in occupied territory. The US has also provided the Ukrainian military with long-range GPS-guided bombs made by Boeing Co. capable of hitting targets 45 miles away.

The Ukrainians have had satellite problems of their own, including Musk’s rejection of a request to expand access to Starlink’s constellation to assist an attack on a Russian naval base.

At the time of Ukraine’s request last year, Musk wasn’t getting any US funding for Starlink’s operations in Ukraine, although it currently is supported with Pentagon funds.

Russia has no cutting-edge network of its own. Upgrading the system it does have is expensive, and Roscosmos has suffered from lost revenue since early 2022, when foreign customers such as London-based satellite operator OneWeb canceled plans to use Soyuz rockets to send their satellites into orbit.

Foreign customers had accounted for between 10% and 20% of the space program’s budget before 2022, said Florian Vidal, a researcher at UiT The Arctic University of Norway. “All this money now is gone,” he said.

Sanctions, which the US and allies first imposed after the 2014 annexation of Crimea and then expanded after the full-scale invasion last year, have further complicated the Glonass update since the system relies on many foreign components, according to Anna Maria Wårlind, a specialist in space policy with the Swedish Defence Research Agency.

“They’ve struggled to raise their own level of innovation,’ she said in a June podcast released by the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies. “Finding substitutes is very challenging for the Russian space program.”

Russia isn’t the only country with difficulties upgrading its satellite network. In the US, lawmakers have criticized delays in a GPS upgrade, with a House subcommittee in June reporting a Raytheon Technologies Corp. project to make the constellation more jam-resistant was seven years late and more than 70% over budget.

The US constellation isn’t as accurate as the newer networks, said Roberts, the Sydney-based professor. “It used to be GPS was out in front,” he said. Now, though, the EU’s Galileo is in the lead, with China’s BeiDou close behind, he said.

Even with Roscosmos hit by falling revenue and the August failure of the Luna-25 moon mission, the military importance of Glonass means Moscow will likely find the money to upgrade the system, said Vidal.

“The Glonass system somehow will be maintained,” he said. “The Ministry of Defense will prioritize defense systems from space.”

Russia’s engineers might find short cuts to keep the system operating, albeit at a level that’s less than ideal, said John Klein, a professor at the George Washington University Space Policy Institute. “They have a long history of making do with the technology they have,” he said.

Even if Russia eventually manages to address the constellation’s shortcomings, for now they will hinder efforts in the war, said John Hardie, deputy director of the Russia Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan research institute in Washington.

Glonass measurements could be off by 10 meters, he added.

“That could be the difference between destroying a target and not destroying it,” he said. “If you’re off by a meter, that might be okay. 10 meters? Maybe not.”

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