China’s BeiDou challenges US GPS dominance

October 26, 2023  - By
Image: imaginima/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Image: imaginima/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Fifty years since it was designed and approved by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), the GPS is at risk of losing its status as the world’s gold-standard location service, reported The Wall Street Journal.

In a recent paper published by Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, “China’s BeiDou: New Dimensions of Great Power Competition,” Sarah Sewall, executive vice president for strategic issues at IQT and co-authors Tyler Vandenburg and Kaj Malden outline their finding that China’s version of GPS is part of the country’s longstanding effort to join the technological ranks of leading nations and use its capabilities to achieve geopolitical advantage across the globe.

Sewall’s assessment of BeiDou’s technical superiority received some unexpected support from a government advisory board on GPS, which stated that “GPS’s capabilities are now substantially inferior to those of China’s BeiDou,” and urged the administration to regain U.S. leadership in the field.

The BeiDou constellation is newer and has more satellites than any other system and has more than ten times as many monitoring stations around the world than GPS does. As a result, BeiDou’s accuracy is much better in many places, including the developing world.

Sewall points out that in cases where BeiDou provides the most accurate positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) data, particularly in the global south, China may be able to influence other nations’ economies, stating that it is one example of “a new form of great power competition that most in the U.S. government don’t recognize.” China is providing superior PNT information to enhance its diplomatic, economic and military power and the United States cannot afford to cede this area of longstanding advantage.

BeiDou being newer and more advanced than other GNSS, makes it easier for China to encourage other nations to use its signals and purchase specialized equipment, especially when equipment purchases are heavily subsidized by the Chinese government, harming the U.S. economy and its status as the leader of GNSS technology.

Recent launch and surveillance fears

On May 16, 2023, China launched its most recent BeiDou satellite to replenish the constellation, bringing its total to 56 satellites, nearly twice as many as the 31 GPS satellites.

The latest BeiDou satellites also feature two-way messaging, a feature that GPS does not have. It 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.

The CNBC report noted the fear that, with its most recent 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 applications for cellphones and an increase in autonomous vehicles that use the BeiDou system, more and more user data is being transmitted.

The U.S. military is upgrading GPS with more-modern satellites that are designed to give nonmilitary devices more-precise coordinates in more indoor and hard-to-reach spaces. However, the next-generation GPS service for civilians is not expected to be released for several years.

GPS pioneered the PNT industry by offering civilians a new, free-to-use system. While originally developed for DOD, it turned into a critical global infrastructure that underlies a vast swath of the U.S. economy.

Besides GPS and BeiDou, there are two other global navigation satellite systems (GNSS), Russia’s Glonass and the European Union’s Galileo, as well as regional systems from Japan (QZSS) and India (NavIc).

BeiDou, once a small regional network with clunky receivers and few civilian users, has grown significantly since launching its first two satellites in 2000. It now has more than 30 precision-enhancing monitoring stations and claims to pinpoint users’ locations to within several centimeters, along with offering basic two-way communication capabilities.

Both BeiDou and GPS offer a variety of nonmilitary benefits that expand beyond the systems’ original expectations, from Uber drivers who often rely on a smartphones GNSS data to locate customers to farmers who can use GPS-based applications for farm planning, field mapping, solid sampling and more. GPS has been called “the silent utility” because signals are used in almost every technology, said Dana Goward, president of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation.

Looking forward 

GPS guides U.S. missiles, ships and troops through more-secure military frequencies kept separate from its civilian signals. Its past dominance even made rival militaries reliant on the Pentagon-controlled system.

The U.S. military has long planned to upgrade GPS with a fleet of modernized and upgradable satellites that provide more-precise coordinates subject to less interference. The newer satellites broadcast data to civilian users over a new frequency called L5.

The Space Force has 17 L5-equipped satellites in orbit after a series of delays  but has yet to reach the 24 live satellites needed to run a reliable system. Some already-built satellites sit in a Colorado warehouse awaiting their turn for a funded launch.

The Space Force said in a statement that GPS continues to set the gold standard in its field.

“While other nations may report improvements in accuracy and equivalent performance in availability, GPS is still the clear leader in integrity and is the only system accepted for international flight use,” a spokeswoman for the branch’s Space Systems Command told The Wall Street Journal.

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