Putting Precision in Operations: Beidou Satellite Navigation System

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 16

China recently announced the development of a fourth-generation Beidou satellite positioning chip providing an accuracy of 2.5 meters, for use initially with the military and police (Want China Times, August 18). The announcement highlights China’s largely successful effort to develop a secure, indigenous system to replace the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS), helping the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to implement precision operations. In particular, the system provides greater accuracy and thus lethality for joint firepower strikes. Moreover, it assists command with an alternate secure communications and a common operating picture of friendly force locations, aids march and maneuver especially in remote areas, and guides logistics support to dispersed units on the battlefield (see China Brief, July 6, 2012).

Many PLA units previously relied on GPS, but Beidou terminals now appear to be deployed to a greater extent throughout the PLA, while providing capabilities not previously available to the Chinese military. Terminals are now deployed throughout the PLA ground forces to at least the brigade/regiment level, PLA Navy (PLAN) ships, Second Artillery Force (SAF) and Air Force (PLAAF). Locational and timing data can assist SAF units in conducting simultaneous strikes from multiple locations against a target.  The system will provide all-weather 24-hour support to surveying and mapping, telecommunications, transportation, meteorology, disaster and emergency response, as well as support to public security and military operations (Xinhua, November 2, 2006; Xinhua, February 2, 2007; Jiefangjun Bao, April 17, 2007; People’s Daily Online, April 15, 2009; Xinhua, July 1).


China began construction of the Beidou system in 1994. In the first stage (2000–2007), four experimental Beidou navigation satellites were launched into orbit. In 2003, the preliminary system began providing support on a trial basis. The second stage, which provides regional coverage, began launching satellites in 2007. The system, serving China and the Asia-Pacific region, began providing navigation, positioning and timing data on a pilot basis in December 2011. China announced that BDS achieved full operational capability (FOC) for the regional system on December 27, 2012. The third stage is planned to achieve global coverage with a constellation of 35 satellites by 2020. Its accuracy will increase as more satellites are put into orbit. China announced that a new generation of Beidou satellites with improved performance will be launched beginning in 2015 (Xinhua, January 17, 2010; China Daily, December 28, 2011; Global Times, December 28, 2011; Xinhua, December 29, 2012; Beidou Navigation Satellite System Signal In Space Interface Control Document: Open Service Signal [Version 2.0], December 2013, China Satellite Navigation Office; Report on the Development of Beidou Navigation Satellite System [Version 2.1], China Satellite Navigation Office December 2012, pp. 5-6; China Military Online, May 22; Xinhua, November 11, 2013).

China cooperated with the European Union’s Galileo program from 2004 to 2010, when the partnership was dissolved after a prolonged series of disputes. It is unclear how much knowledge and technology China was able to gain from the relationship, although it was able to purchase 20 atomic clocks from a Swiss firm, a vital component for such a system (Reuters, December 22, 2013). China and Russia recently reached an agreement to cooperate in the area of satellite navigation systems, including construction of monitoring stations in each other’s territory to promote improved performance and integration of Beidou/Compass and the Russian Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) (Xinhua, July 1).

System Capabilities

Unlike similar systems, Beidou provides text messaging, with 120 Chinese characters per message. PLA units regularly rely on this capability in exercises to augment other communications means. Another open service system provides civilian users with horizontal and vertical positioning accuracy within 10 meters, 0.2-meter-per-second velocity accuracy and timing accuracy within 50 nanoseconds. Specifications for the authorized or military service are not given, but some reporting indicates that it is comparable to current GPS capabilities. In April 2013, the Beidou Ground Base Enhancement System (BGBES), consisting of 30 ground stations, was approved in Hubei Province to improve accuracy. This more precise system will support mapping, land resources, urban construction and national development projects. In May 2014, the Beidou Radio Beacon-Differential Beidou Navigation Satellite System (RBN-DBDS) improved positioning accuracy to one meter for maritime operations (Xinhua, November 2, 2006; Beidou Navigation Satellite System Open Service Performance Standard [Version 1.0], China Satellite Navigation Office December 2013, p.15; Press Release at Press Conference of the State Council Information Office; Xinhua, May 26; Xinhua, March 22, 2013).

Terminals include Beidou-only terminals as well as ones capable of receiving signals from other satellite navigation systems. Terminals also transmit their location, so command posts can maintain a friendly common operating picture with location and movement data on units with terminals (Xinhua, January 17, 2010; China Daily, December 28, 2011; Report on the Development of Beidou (COMPASS) Navigation Satellite System [V1.0], China Satellite Navigation Office December 2011, pp. 3-6; People’s Daily Online, February 5, 2013; Global Times, December 28, 2013). The Satellite Navigation Center of the PLA National University of Defense Technology (NUDT) has developed a Beidou electromagnetic shield to protect satellites, aircraft, missiles and other user equipment from interference (People’s Daily Online, February 5, 2013; China Military Online, May 16, 2013).

Operational Employment

Prior to the development of Beidou, units used GPS for positioning and maneuver, and GPS was incorporated into equipment and weapons systems, thus making for an easy transition to Beidou employment. The Beidou communication capability is nevertheless a significant enhancement over GPS, and one which the PLA reportedly uses heavily (Xinhua, September 17, 1998; Zhongguo Tongxun She, August 21, 1999; Xinhua, August 15, 2000; Jiefangjun Bao, November 14, 2000; Jiefangjun Bao, July 17, 2002; Jiefangjun Bao, January 15, 2003; Jiefangjun Bao, September 17, 2003; Xinhua August 1, 2004; Jiefangjun Bao, December 9, 2004; Xinhua, August 5, 2005).

Disaster Support

Beidou proved extremely helpful in the earthquake that hit Sichuan Province on May 12, 2008. Beidou terminals were carried by the first People’s Armed Police (PAP) and military units entering the area, providing a desperately needed communications capability, in addition to navigation and positioning support. The General Staff Department’s (GSD) Satellite Navigation and Positioning Main Station provided 24-hour emergency support during the Wenchuan earthquake (Xinhua, January 17, 2010; Jiefangjun Bao, November 25, 2013; China Military Online, December 21, 2013; Xinhua; November 11, 2013). The GSD also provided 260 Beidou terminals to units engaged in rescue efforts during the Sichuan earthquake in 2013 (Jiefangjun Bao Online, April 21, 2013).

Military Employment

The General Staff Department’s (GSD) Satellite Navigation and Positioning Main Station, established in 1999, provides research, demonstration, construction, operation and management support for BDS (Jiefangjun Bao, November 25, 2013; China Military Online, December 21, 2013; Xinhua; November 11, 2013).  The GSD Surveying and Mapping Bureau provides the PLA with a time service signal through the Beidou system (Xinhua, May 29; Jiefangjun Bao Online, May 10, 2010).

The PLA and PAP both participated in the experimental first stage of Beidou, with terminals provided to an unidentified group army (likely the 38th in Beijing MR) in 2003. According to press reporting, Beidou terminals appear to be deployed at least to ground forces brigade/regiment levels and probably to lower echelons, PLAN ships and the Second Artillery Force. While PLA aircraft use of Beidou is not highlighted in exercise reporting, it is likely that it is being integrated with established GPS systems. Beidou is part of the integrated command platform down to at least the brigade/regiment levels. Specialized units such as reconnaissance, special forces and PLAAF airborne troops appear to have terminals down to the squad level. Other specialized units that would rely heavily on the system at lower echelons include fire support, logistics and equipment support units. It is likely that ground forces maneuver units will deploy Beidou terminals down to squad level, if they have not already, as the PLA moves to achieve greater independent operations at lower tactical levels (Jiefangjun Bao Online, December 8, 2009; Xinhua, February 1 2013; Xinhua, November 11, 2013; Jiefangjun Bao Online, May 29, 2013; Xinhua, April 17, 2010; Jiefangjun Bao Online, November 24, 2011; National Air & Space Intelligence Center, People’s Liberation Army Air Force 2010, August 1, 2010, p. 86).

PLA exercise reporting on the use of Beidou during exercises began in 2009, including:

  • Beidou use during the Kuayue-2009 exercise, a long range multi-region movement and confrontation training by four divisions, for secure communications as well as positioning and navigation. A reconnaissance detachment from the 121st Infantry Division, 41st Group Army, used Beidou to pass coordinates of an enemy command post for artillery strikes (Jiefangjun Bao Online, August 11, 2009; Jiefangjun Bao,  September 18, 2009; Jiefangjun Bao Online, December 8, 2009).
  • Chengdu Military Region during Xinan Shiming-2009 used data from both GPS and Beidou, and depicted friendly force locations on monitors in a command vehicle (Jiefangjun Bao Online, October 1, 2009).
  • PLAAF Airborne Force exercise Kongjiang Jidong-2009 where Beidou terminals were distributed to most squads for positioning and navigation during long distance marches, and probably for communication (Xinhua, October 18, 2009; Jiefangjun Bao Online, October 29, 2009).

PLA press reports more recent Beidou use during exercises, notably among logistics units. The navigation and positioning capabilities are particularly important for logistics units moving critical supplies to dispersed and maneuvering units (Jiefangjun Bao Online, March 30, 2010).

Beidou terminals are reportedly used as part of an integrated command platform at various echelons, while also used for battlefield situation display at combined arms tactical training bases (Jiefangjun Bao Online, November 9, 2012). The PLAN uses Beidou as a secure and easy communications method, as well as to display vessel position, heading and speed (Xinhua, February 1, 2013). The PLAN also trains without Beidou or other satellite positioning systems to maintain manual positioning capability (Jiefangjun Bao Online, March 30, 2012).

Reconnaissance and special forces units use Beidou terminals to pass targeting data to artillery groups, and terminals are deployed to artillery batteries (Jiefangjun Bao Online, August 15, 2010; January 2, 2011; December 5, 2011). Beijing Garrison developed a military vehicle monitoring system for real-time monitoring of vehicles to include location, vehicle information and operational status based mainly on the Beidou system. Gradually all PLA vehicles will have a monitoring system installed (Jiefangjun Bao Online, August 6, 2012). There have been reports of personnel having difficulties because of lack of training on Beidou, but problems appear to be minimal (Jiefangjun Bao Online, August 4, 2013).

Beidou positioning and communications capabilities are particularly important for border defense forces patrolling long remote border sections. Both coastal and border defense maritime units employ Beidou terminals on their vessels (Jiefangjun Bao Online, October 14, 2009; June 4, 2011; June 20).

PLA reporting provides little information on Beidou use for precision strikes other than general information. Special forces and reconnaissance patrols use Beidou for communication and passing target location data to fire support units. Press reports also state that the PLA began retrofitting weapons systems with Beidou. Xinhua reported that the 11th Five Year (2006–2010) Plan applied Beidou to command, weapons guidance, training and other areas. The PLA also recognizes the need to protect Beidou systems against jamming (People’s Daily Online, February 5, 2013; Xinhua, November 11, 2013; February 25, 2011).

Short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), cruise missiles and long-range guided rocket systems reportedly have Beidou-aided guidance for increased accuracy. For example, the Changjian-10 land-based cruise missile is described as using Beidou for mid-flight guidance. Beidou is reportedly used for advanced flight path planning which allows the SAF to launch from multiple locations against a target. Beidou timing service also would support this capability (Wen Wei Po Online, July 31, 2011; November 12, 2009). Reports indicate the PLA has retrofitted “dumb” munitions, for example the LS-6 precision glide bomb tested by the PLAAF in 2006. NORINCO also advertises various guided munitions that include Beidou/GPS aided guidance (Taipei Times, January 3, 2012; NORINCO website, accessed July 25).


While the PLA is capable of using other satellite positioning systems, Beidou provides a secure indigenous system to support realization of PLA precision operations, and Beidou terminals appear to be deployed more extensively throughout the PLA than GPS. The unique communications capability is relied on heavily for command and communications. Beidou is also incorporated into the integrated command system to provide a common operating picture of friendly force locations on command monitors; PLA reconnaissance forces are using Beidou to provide accurate target positioning at the tactical levels; and precision weapons are incorporating Beidou with the guidance systems for precision strikes. Logistics units rely on Beidou to rapidly supply widely dispersed units.

As Beidou achieves global coverage at the end of this decade, the PLAAF, PLAN and SAF will be able to rely on a secure indigenous system as operational areas move further from China’s borders. Beidou thus provides targeting data, navigation, positioning and timing data for precision operations, and particularly for precision strikes as the PLA deploys greater numbers of longer-range precision weapons.