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Why it is good to have a navigation system of our own

“The United States has shut down Russia’s GPS navigation system as part of sanctions over the war in Ukraine!”

A tweet with this claim went viral on March 13, amassing thousands of likes within a few hours, and people were eager to add to it with jabs at the seemingly low accuracy of Russian missiles. This was despite the fact that the author of the tweet was unable to support the information with anything.

Even the head of Russia’s space agency Roskosmos, Dimitry Rogozin, a week later during a visit to the Progress Rocket and Space Center, reportedly volunteered a statement that the United States was considering disconnecting Russia from the GPS navigation system. No one on the US side has confirmed or denied these speculations, which, I believe, can be considered a pretty successful example of the disinformation that is a weapon of choice in modern warfare.

Moreover, shutting down GPS in Russia makes neither technical nor strategic sense. As to why, I will try to answer that in the article.

We probably all use navigation, for example on our phones. But rarely does one have reason to pause and think about how it actually works and whether it can really be “shut down” only for a particular country.

USA: GPS and the birth of satellite navigation

The term GPS was adopted as the name for Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS), apparently because it was the American one that was the first fully operational constellation. GPS is owned by the US government and operated by the US Space Force. Since 2000, the GPS signal has been the same both for civilian and military purposes, so the difference in positioning accuracy is mainly determined by the quality of the receiver and the surrounding environment (in a city among tall buildings with limited views of the sky, the accuracy will be reduced). Conventional smartphones with GPS can determine the position with an accuracy of up to 5 metres, commercial devices up to a few millimetres.

The GPS system consists of 24 satellites, equipped with, among other things, very accurate timepieces, positioned in orbit to give an optimal signal coverage of the entire Earth. Like other geonavigation systems, GPS is entirely passive. What does this mean? The satellites simply transmit a signal with their exact location and time, and they don’t care if anyone down on Earth receives it, much less which country that person is in. In fact, the determination of the location itself takes place directly in the receiver. Once your mobile phone has a signal from four satellites, it is able to calculate your position, speed and the direction in which you are moving, so technically you can’t really turn off satellites that only cover a certain area. Theoretically, the US could reintroduce jamming of civilian channels by random errors, making it impossible to use them for precise positioning, but this would cause essentially no complications for the Russian military. Russia, much like the European Union or China, has its own global navigation system, and even an ordinary smartphone is capable of receiving signals from several systems simultaneously.


It probably comes as no surprise that the development of the Russian GLONASS global navigation system, like the US GPS, began during the Cold War. The system was completed in the 1990s, but gradually became obsolete.

The full operation of the constellation of 24 satellites was only resumed in 2011 after massive investments; to this day, GLONASS swallows up about a third of Russia’s space budget. As with GPS, the satellites transmit signals at different frequencies, but unlike GPS, the high-precision signal from GLONASS satellites is only available to authorised users such as the Russian military.

It is even rumoured that the GLONASS signal for military use is more accurate than GPS – and if even that were not enough, there are still two other global navigation systems.

EU: Galileo

The European navigation system went live in 2016, and is currently still in a “pre-operational” capacity phase. This means that the satellites transmit a signal that can be used for civilian and government purposes. There are 28 satellites in orbit, of which 21 are fully operational and 2 are in the testing phase. A fully operational constellation will consist of at least 24 satellites, as with GPS and GLONASS, but Galileo promises even higher positioning accuracy for civilian use, around one metre.

Although it is not widely known, most modern smartphones can already use Galileo. If you want to check if yours can, you can find instructions on the EUSPA website. As of last week, all new phones entering the European market must be able to receive signals from Europe’s Galileo satellites. You can also find out more about this by visiting EUSPA’s headquarters in Prague’s Holešovice.

China: BeiDou

The idea of developing its own navigation system was conceived in China as early as the 1980s, but it took twenty years for the development of the actual satellites to get off the ground. China was also originally intending to cooperate with the EU on the Galileo project, particularly in the field of civil satellite navigation, but eventually decided to opt for its own system. BeiDou officially became a fully operational GNSS in 2018.

Jamming of the signal as one of the possibilities

Notwithstanding the fact that Russia probably also uses a network of ground-based transmitters for navigation, given the number of mutually independent global navigation systems, it is almost impossible for individual countries to find themselves without satellite navigation.

One way to make satellite navigation impossible is by jamming the signal with ground-based equipment. Russia’s largest jammer, the Krasukha 2, can disrupt satellite signals within a radius of up to 250 kilometres. Russia has already used it during NATO exercises in Finland in 2018 and may use it now in the war in Ukraine.

Similarly, the U.S., as well as other powers, could use selective jamming of satellite signals over certain areas or allow access to the signal only for military and government purposes. However, these steps would have only a limited effect and yet again would probably impact most heavily on the civilian population.


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