Key Point: Russia's development of an alternative navigation system could be crucial for the future of the Arctic.
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The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has accused Russia of jamming GPS signals during its recent military exercise in Norway.
According to NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu, “Norway has determined that Russia was responsible for jamming GPS signals in the Kola Peninsula during Exercise Trident Juncture. Finland has expressed concern over possible jamming in Lapland.”
The Norwegian Government says that the jamming came from the Kola Peninsula, located in Russia’s Murmansk province. This comes on the heels of a similar accusation from Norway during Russia’s 2017 “Zapad” military exercise.
These charges mark yet another episode in the longstanding NATO-Russian competition for the Arctic. The militarization of the Arctic has been well-covered over the past decade. Less known, but no less crucial for the future of the region, is the Russian effort to develop and proliferate its own satellite navigation system as a counterweight to the Global Positioning System (GPS).
GLONASS, or the “Global Navigation Satellite System,” was born as a 1970’s Soviet project to establish a satellite-based space navigation system in the context of the ongoing Cold War space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.
These efforts were met with some technical success, and over two dozen GLONASS satellites were launched over the following decade. GLONASS rivaled its American GPS counterpart by 1990 but fell by the wayside from a lack of funding after the Soviet collapse.
It was in the early 2000s that Russian President Vladimir Putin took an active interest in modernizing GLONASS to reach parity with the advancements made by GPS. This led to the introduction of the longer-lasting GLONASS-M, followed by the further-improved GLONASS-K. In 2015, the GLONASS system was officially completed according to the specifications of the Russian Ministry of Defense.
GLONASS and GPS are built on similar design principles, and therefore enjoy rough performance parity in most contemporary use-cases. While GLONASS boasts slightly better accuracy at high altitudes, its major current weakness is a relative lack of stations in certain regions. Moreover, GLONASS satellites’ chief production flaw is over-reliance on foreign components—a security concern that Russia hopes to address in 2022 with the release of its GLONASS-K2 revision.
As relations between Moscow and NATO soured over the past decade, GLONASS attained a new defensive-offensive strategic significance for Russia. The Kremlin banned GPS on Russian territory in 2014, citing “national security concerns” stemming from the fear that America could sabotage GPS-reliant Russian infrastructure.
At the same time, Russia has aggressively established GLONASS networks to consolidate its influence in conflict zones. In Syria, the Kremlin claims it was successfully used to coordinate precision bombings against anti-Assad forces while minimizing the need for Russian boots on the ground.
GLONASS also makes it easier for the Russian military to pursue electronic countermeasures (ECM)—such as jamming—against hostile drones without adversely affecting their Syrian government allies.
GLONASS, more than just a technical alternative, is for Moscow a strategic alternative to and a counterweight against GPS. In this context, it becomes apparent that the establishment of GLONASS stations is a key part of Russia’s influence-building project in the Arctic.
For Russia, proliferating a proprietary satellite navigation technology is yet another way to secure a competitive edge in an Arctic region that is becoming increasingly militarized. Conversely, it is not unreasonable to conclude that Russia would want to signal its capacity to undermine GPS in what it deems to be its sphere of interest.
Mark Episkopos is a frequent contributor to The National Interest and serves as a research assistant at the Center for the National Interest. Mark is also a Ph.D. student in History at American University. This article first appeared in 2018 and is reprinted here due to reader interest.