Russia has proposed that China becomes a partner in using its GLONASS (Global Navigation Satellite System) space satellite system, which is similar to the GPS (global positioning satellite) navigation system developed in the US. Agreement on co-operation is thought to be imminent following a visit to Moscow in January by Chinese defence minister Chi Haotian. The visit was made against a background of strengthening bilateral ties, with military-technical cooperation "developing successfully',' according to Russian deputy premier Ilya Klebanov.
GPS is funded and controlled by the US Department of Defence. While there are many thousands of civil users of GPS worldwide, the system was designed for, and is operated by, the US military. GLONASS is also a dual-purpose system. Originally built for the military, a presidential decree and special governmental resolution have been adopted to allow its commercial use. However, there is a significant difference in the accuracy of data given to consumers for military purposes, the system can offer far better resolution.
Russia is proposing that China should become a coowner of GLONASS, which would give it access to data with militarily precision. The signals are used by many GPS receivers to complement or back up the GPS system. The GLONASS operational system contains 21 satellites in three orbital planes, with three on-orbit spares. GPS has 24 satellites with several on-orbit spares.
GLONASS can provide an accuracy of 100 metres with its deliberately degraded signals and 10-20-metre accuracy with its military signals. It uses radio navigation, enabling an unlimited number of customers to access all-weather 3D positioning, velocity and time measurements anywhere in the world. It can be used in many areas, including air and naval traffic management, cartography, ground transport monitoring, ecological monitoring, and search and rescue operations.
The system was originally established in order to locate the Soviet Union's civil air-craft and its merchant and fishing vessels. It has been operating since 1982 with a regular replacement of satellites. The earlier units stayed in operation for only one or two years but those launched recently have a design life of around five years. There was a hiatus in launches in 1996 and 1997 due to financial difficulties, but replacement started again in 1998. Russia is now upgrading GLONASS. On December 30, three new Uragan satellites were launched to orbit in the same plane 19,000 km above the earth. The system now has 21 of its 24 satellites fully operational.
China currently uses both GPS and GLONASS for civilian purposes and to improve the accuracy of its weapons and the situational awareness of its operational forces. The Chinese aerospace industry is pursuing the integration of GPS into its new fighter aircraft and its defence companies have entered into joint ventures with foreign firms to produce GPS receivers. China Aerospace Corporation displayed a GPS receiver at an exhibition in Beijing in September 1996, and is now producing receivers that can receive GPS and/or GLONASS signals. China has also announced plans for its own navigation satellite system, known as Twin Star. This would utilise two satellites in geosynchronous orbit for positioning, messaging and timing services.
While Twin Star represents an attempt to become independent of GPS and GLONASS navigation satellites, it will not be able to deliver the same level of accuracy. Russia is determined to win more business in China and it plans to continue with its GLONASS system overhaul. But while GLONASS is cheaper than GPS, it remains to be seen whether China will take advantage of the offer or continue to keep its options open.