Russia’s GPS Shutdown Over Ukraine Sanctions Hurts Science, Russians, Experts Say

GPS satellite
The Global Positioning System (GPS) uses a series of base stations on Earth, that relay location data to satellites which in turn beam it down to sensors that provide navigation and location data. GPS.gov

Russia is threatening to shut down GPS stations within its borders as a countermeasure over U.S. sanctions. But experts say Moscow’s politicians would be “shooting themselves in the foot,” considering the move would harm Russian scientists and citizens more than any U.S. interests in the region.

“This seems to be entirely a political play,” Dr. Geoffrey Blewitt of the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology told the International Business Times. “It’s a part of the world where we don’t have very many stations in the first place.”

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said Tuesday that the GPS units will go dark on June 1 unless Washington agrees to install similar Russian GLOSNASS units on U.S. territory, and they will be permanently disabled in September. Rogozin issued the deadline Tuesday. He also announced Russia’s decision to pull out of the International Space Station by 2020 and block the export of rocket engines to the U.S. as the Kremlin tries to push back against sanctions over the annexation of Crimea and the Ukraine crisis.

GPS and GLOSNASS use a series of satellites providing location data, and rely on base stations to relay the information to everything from a car’s navigation system to computers that study plate tectonics for earthquake detection. GPS was developed by the U.S. Department of Defense beginning in 1973, amid the Cold War, while development of GLOSNASS started in the Soviet Union in 1976.

Blewitt said that among the Russian GPS stations that the Kremlin has aimed its sights on, about 15 are studying plate tectonics and five are providing a service to farmers to improve the accuracy of pesticide applications.

“If Russia decides to take down those stations, it’s going to reduce our understanding of a huge part of real estate on this planet,” Blewitt said. “In the end, it’s really not good for science, and that’s what’s going to get hit.”

Rogozin -- who often uses social networking site Twitter to communicate about Russia's actions -- says the move will affect Washington but not everyday Russians.

“The receiver of seismic and geodynamic data from GPS stations in Russia has been the US Geological Survey [USGS] of the US Department of Homeland Security,” the deputy prime minister tweeted Wednesday. The USGS deferred IBTimes’ questions to the Department of Homeland Security, which did not respond to a request for comment.

But Russia’s GPS shutdown will not affect the US military’s use of the technology, according to Dr. Todd Humphries, professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Texas.

“Core ground stations are used by the U.S. military to determine the orbits of the GPS satellites ... which then beam it down to everybody’s GPS receivers,” Humphries told IBTimes. “But those ground stations used by the military are not in hostile territory. They’re all very well established elsewhere.”

The stations used for agriculture and plate tectonics are owned, in part, by Russians, Humphries noted.

“It’s shooting themselves in the foot, for [Russia] to kick them out,” he said. “I think it’s a bunch of bluster, and if they do it, I don’t think anybody would notice.”

U.S. politicians are opposed to the installation of Russian stations on American soil, which they say could be a threat to national security.

“I am deeply concerned about the Russian proposal to use U.S. soil to strengthen its GPS capabilities,” Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said late last year, fearing the monitor stations be used to gather intelligence and even improve the accuracy of foreign missiles.

Ground-based systems, however, would likely be disabled during a military conflict, according to Dr. Roger Handberg, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida.

“I assume both countries would knock out these systems during wartime,” Handberg said. “All you have to do is cut power to shut these stations down.”

Iran agreed this week to allow the Kremlin to install a GLONASS station within its borders, Russia’s state-run newspaper reported Tuesday. Handberg says the Iranian station could be used to aid Russian ships in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea.

“The Russians are trying to make their GLOSNASS system more competitive. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, their system deteriorated badly,” Handberg said. “It’s part of reestablishing Russia as a great power, which Putin is so adamant about.”

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