Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin informed President Vladimir Putin, on April 24, that the country’s Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) is finally able to finance itself without state support. Rogozin called this “a huge achievement that opens up the prospect for commercialization of other domestically elaborated space programs” (News.mail.ru, April 24).
First development work on GLONASS—Moscow’s answer to the United States’ satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS)—began in 1976. The Russian military began utilizing GLONASS for its navigational needs in 1993, but numerous technical deficiencies and chronic underfinancing derailed the project toward the end of the 1990s. Starting in 2001, Moscow took solid steps aimed at revitalizing the system, with a key role played by the Russian Ministry of Defense. By 2015, the Russian authorities announced that “all work on GLONASS has been successfully finalized” (Lenta.ru, December 7, 2015).
Russia employs its homegrown navigation system for both civilian and military purposes. On March 27, it was announced that GLONASS would soon be allocated the function of a federal operator (federlniy operator). The main aim is the unification of the ERA-GLONASS accident emergency response system with the 112 emergency call centers and the “Safe City” system, all under the umbrella of the so-called “Smart City” (Kommersant, March 27, 2018). If achieved, the Russian state would attain full control of the information security domain in every Russian city. Moreover, this could become the first step toward an intensification of the Kremlin’s import-substitution strategy in microelectronics—one of the key objectives outlined in the latest Doctrine of Information Security of the Russian Federation (see EDM, December 16, 2016).
Meanwhile, Russian official sources have already ascribed much of Russian military successes in Syria to the effectiveness of the GLONASS system. Numerous analyses have praised the exceptionally high level of precision demonstrated by the system. Specifically, the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST) has argued that GLONASS allowed the Russian military to form a special “ecosystem” (reflected in the ability to coordinate various types of weaponry), which in many respects minimized Russian combat casualties and enabled “the delivery of high-precision strikes against terrorists” (Vedomosti, March 1, 2017). According to the CAST study, the ability to deliver strikes with the Kalibr-NK cruise missile (such as in October 2015—see EDM, October 26, 2015) and other types of weaponry in Syria was secured by the accuracy and precision of GLONASS.
Referencing the Syrian campaign, Russian military experts have identified a number of newly acquired capabilities that apparently became feasible for Russia’s Armed Forces thanks to GLONASS (Rusnext.ru, March 1, 2017):
– The planning of air strikes and navigation under new/challenging geographic conditions (such as the desert) has been upgraded to a qualitatively new level;
– Recognition and analysis of unfamiliar terrain has become possible;
– The large-scale employment of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) has been tested for the first time in Russian military practice;
– Numerous deficiencies faced by the Russian military during the August 2008 war with Georgia (“blind kitten syndrome,” as one Russian military specialist colorfully put it) have been overcome.
In a comment to Vedemosti last year, the editor of the Moscow Defense Brief, Mikhail Barabanov, also noted the low number of casualties and rather modest number of Russian military personnel involved in military operations in Syria—according to the expert, around 5,000 servicemen. Both of these, Barabanov argued, were enabled by the use of GLONASS to effectively coordinate military actions and navigation. The Moscow Defense Brief editor also claimed that “current Russian military capabilities have now reached those of the US in the 1990s” (Vedomosti, March 1, 2017). The head of the Russian aerospace firm Information Satellite Systems (ISS), Nikolai Testoyedov, presented a rather similar assessment in 2016. He then argued that, “out of all [space-based] systems, the most important for us is GLONASS. It is not just a system, it is a matter of state security.” Referring to GLONASS’s purported advertised accuracy, he continued, “This is those 5–6 meters in Syria, without which high-precision strikes become impossible to deliver” (Vz.ru, May 13, 2016).
In spite of such cheerful rhetoric, existing uncertainties cast a shadow of doubt over the widely declared impeccability of Russia’s satellite navigation system.
On April 16, 2018, it was reported that GLONASS had temporarily ceased to provide its users with high-precision positioning information, a fact corroborated by Russian official sources. As eventually revealed, the issue was related to some unidentified problems with the satellites’ power supply system (Vz.ru, April 16, 2018).
Subsequently, on April 24, the media stated that “a second satellite [a part of the GLONASS-M system] stopped transmitting information within the past two weeks.” The authorities rushed to explain that the remaining 22 satellites remain perfectly capable of performing their functions without any threat to users (News2mail.ru, April 24). But later, Russian officials denied the aforementioned problems (RIA Novosti, April 28).
It is worth pointing out that repeat problems with the GLONASS satellite constellation are not a new phenomenon. For example, in 2016 (and on several occasions before that), the system reportedly experienced a temporary service collapse caused by the same type of failure (Fair.ru, April 16), meaning that the deficiencies of Russian global positioning satellites have still not been fully overcome. The Russian government habitually opts not to disclose information about this matter until the story again becomes impossible to keep bottled up.
Finally, in rushing to fulfill the key provisions of the state’s import-substitution strategy, but unable to find affordable domestic alternatives, Russian aerospace-sector manufacturers are reportedly increasingly relying on technologically flawed components. According to Ivan Kosenkov, of the high-tech management firm Skolkovo Foundation, domestically produced components “are much more expensive in comparison with Western analogues” (News.rambler.ru, April 24), which has compelled Russian firms to partly rely on technologically inferior Chinese products.
Plagued by corruption-related scandals (Vz.ru, July 30, 2012) but buoyed by the Kremlin’s strong motivation to prove Russia is able to compete technologically with the West despite sanctions, GLONASS’s much-hailed “achievements” thus may be consistently exaggerated by Russian officials.