Russia’s constellation of GLONASS navigation satellites are part of a dual-use system—available to both civilian users and the military. Moscow began deploying it during the 1980s–1990s, but its initial capabilities were almost fully lost by the year 2000, due to technical and economic shortcomings. However, since 2002 it has become one of the highest priorities for Russia’s space activities and was deployed a second time.
The system’s main purpose is military in nature, which is why the Russian Armed Forces were originally supposed to take full ownership of GLONASS after the deployment of the entire satellite constellation. But Russia’s military refused to take responsibility for it in December 2012 (RBC, December 21, 2012), consequently leaving, Roscosmos, the state-owned corporation and successor of the Federal Space Agency, in control of both GLONASS’s operation and modernization. The present year notably marks the conclusion of a nine-year, multi-billion-ruble, federal program on the “Maintenance, Development and Operation of the GLONASS System in 2012–2020,” and the results of the effort have been far from an unqualified success. The main challenge for Russia remains the need to rely on navigation satellites operating beyond their warranted lifetime; but due to manufacturing delays, Roscosmos looks unable to replace them anytime soon.
As of April 2020, the entire GLONASS system consists of 24 active satellites, with 23 of them belonging to the GLONASS-M generation. Thirteen of the satellites currently in orbit have exceeded their warranted seven-year lifespan (Glonass-iac.ru, accessed April 22). Moreover, two GLONASS-M satellites have been moved to the reserve. In 2011–2014, Russia began to deploy a new generation of satellites, the GLONASS-K, with a ten-year lifespan and advanced capabilities, but Roscosmos was only able to send two of these satellites into orbit: one of them is currently operational (launched in 2014), while the other (launched in 2011) is formally undergoing flight trials and is still not included within the rest of the system. Russia had originally intended to deploy even newer GLONASS-K2 satellites in the late 2010s, following the successful launch of several GLONASS-Ks; but those plans remain on hold (Iss-reshetnev.com, October 2007).
A major stumbling block for Moscow has been the international sanctions against Russia, adopted after its annexation of Crimea and war in eastern Ukraine beginning in 2014. A subset of those sanctions specifically limited Russia’s access to foreign electronic components, which had accounted for up to 70 percent of GLONASS satellite equipment. A full substitution of these components with Russian-made electronics currently looks impossible (Sibirskiy Sputnik, December 2019). So, it is questionable how Russia will obtain the necessary equipment.
Another issue is the slowed-down rate of satellite manufacturing and deployment. Since 2013, Russia has launched an average of two satellites annually, despite having successfully sent up three to six satellites per year prior to that point. That drop partially accounted for planned deployments of advanced satellites with longer life spans. However, the development of those new satellites became delayed, and Russia was forced to continue the manufacturing and deployment of the older GLONASS-M-generation models. As of April 2020, the Reshetnev Company, a subsidiary of Roscosmos and the primary manufacturer of GLONASS satellites, readied for launch its last GLONASS-M satellite (the second-to-last was sent into orbit in March 2020). It also currently has two GLONASS-K in their final production stages (Sibirskiy Sputnik, No. 7 (489), March 2020)—but with several months of delays.
Current plans call for the deployment of nine of the more advanced GLONASS-K satellites by 2022 (RIA Novosti, April 5); however, it is unclear whether or not Reshetnev Company will actually be able to produce this number. Last summer, media reports suggested the firm was facing an insurmountable deficit of electronic components (RBC, June 25, 2019). Meanwhile, the prospects for the GLONASS-K2 generation of global navigation satellites is even more uncertain: Reshetnev Company subcontractors (which are subsidiaries of Roscosmos and Almaz-Antey) are still developing the on-board equipment that will be installed in these satellites (Sibirskiy Sputnik, April 2020).
Besides the impact of Western sanctions, the GLONASS program continues to suffer from a lack of homegrown technological capabilities and the economic ineffectiveness of the industry, including cost inflation and the negative effects of a non-competitive environment. For instance, Russia spent more than $3.2 billion for its satellite navigation system during 2002–2011, based on then-current dollars and yearly average exchange rates (Fcp.economy.gov.ru, accessed April 22). During that time, Moscow deployed 34 GLONASS-M satellites (12 of them remain active) and 1 GLONASS-K satellite (launched in 2011, formally still undergoing flight trials). Moreover, the period additionally included investments in ground infrastructure and in modernizing industrial facilities. In contrast, Russia’s spending on its satellite navigation system in 2012–2020 will surpass $5.1 billion (Fcp.economy.gov.ru, accessed April 22). However, the total number of satellites deployed during this timeframe has so far included only 11 GLONASS-M satellites and 1 GLONASS-K satellite (2014). As mentioned above, one additional GLONASS-M and two GLONASS-K satellites are planned for launch later this year.
Research and development (R&D) of the next generation of navigation satellites, including the modernization of industrial facilities and ground infrastructure as well as governmental efforts at securing electronic equipment import substitution, have consumed the largest portion of Russia’s spending on its orbital global positioning system to date. Hence, the results going forward look doubtful: more than half of the active GLONASS satellites have already exceeded their warranted seven-year lifecycles, and the prospect of their replacement will remain unclear until the Reshetnev Company is able to produce at least three GLONASS-K satellites per year.
In its quest to develop the GLONASS program beyond 2020, the Russian government has limited options available to it. The first is to increase spending further in order to boost the manufacturing of a new generation of navigation satellites. But this pushes up against the reality of ongoing economic turbulence and tax revenue uncertainty as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and oil market collapse. The second option for Russia is to restart the manufacture of the older GLONASS-M models. The final option is to hope that the Russian navigation satellites in orbit currently operating beyond their warranted lifespans will continue to work until a sufficient number of GLONASS-Ks can be produced to replace them.