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China threatens U.S. GNSS dominance

July 31, 2023  - By
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Image: Nikada/E+/Getty Images

A report by CNBC — based on a paper published by Harvard’s’ Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and written by Sarah Sewall — noted a growing concern that China’s BeiDou is technologically superior to GPS and serves much of the population better.

Experts in the CNBC report explained that BeiDou supports China’s military ambitions, has spurred economic growth in the country, and has increased its diplomatic leverage.

The first BeiDou satellite was launched in 2000 and served only mainland China. The system now consists of 45 operational satellites with 30 of them being the latest generation BDS-3 satellites.

Image: Bedou.gov

Image: Bedou.gov

In 2020, China launched the last BeiDou satellite, completing the constellation. Since then, the influence of BeiDou has grown, with an estimated 1.1 billion people now using the system.

One feature in the latest BeiDou satellites is two-way messaging that is mainly available in China and requires special chips that are not widely available in the consumer market. It enables users to send short messages in areas without ground network cell coverage and can be used for search and rescue operations.

Surveillance fears

The CNBC report noted the fear that, with its enhancements, the BeiDou system could be used as a surveillance device — as the two-way messaging feature reveals a user’s locations as well as other types of data.

Additionally, with the growing number of apps for cellphones and an increase in autonomous vehicles that use the BeiDou system, more and more user data is being transmitted.

The bottom line

Satellites in the United States’ GPS constellation do not yet have those kinds of features.

There are 31 operational GPS satellites, 6 of which are GPS III satellites.

Image: GPS.gov

Image: GPS.gov

GPS satellite modernization 

In 2008 Lockheed Martin beat out Boeing — the manufacturer of older GPS satellites — to build the GPS III satellites, the last of which was delivered in February. GPS III satellites deliver enhanced performance through a variety of improvements, including increased signal protection with improved accuracy.

GPS III SV07, SV08, SV09 and SV10 (SV stands for “space vehicle”) are awaiting launch at Lockheed Martin’s GPS III processing facility in Waterton, Colorado.

Lockheed Martin is now working on 22 GPS IIIF satellites — contracted in 2018 — that will feature more advanced capabilities. These satellites are expected to launch in 2026.

The U.S. Space Force exercised its second contract option valued at approximately $737 million for the procurement of three additional GPS IIIF space vehicles from Lockheed Martin on Oct. 22, 2021. This contract option is for GPS IIIF satellites 15, 16 and 17 (SV15-17).

The entire fleet of GPS satellites is expected to be modernized in 2032 or 2033. However, for now, President Biden’s National Space-Based Positioning Navigation, and Timing (PNT) Advisory Board recognizes the need for a resilient national PNT architecture and acknowledges that BeiDou is technologically superior to GPS.

About the Author: Maddie Saines

Maddie was a managing editor at GPS World.