China completes navigation network Beidou

Beidou’s GPS rival is now fully operational after the satellite finally launched

To date, there are only four major GNSS networks: GPS (US), GLONASS (Russia), Galileo (European Union) and now Beidou. India and Japan operate smaller systems.

Most people are familiar with GPS, which is used for everything from personal navigation on your smartphone to tracking planes and container ships around the world.

Beidou is China’s alternative system. It’s named after the Chinese word for the Big Dipper constellation, and has taken almost two decades to complete.

There is hope in China that Beidou could be a global competitor to GPS, but the US option still has “absolute market share,” said Song Zhongping, a Chinese military expert who has worked with China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs and the National Development and Reform Commission. .

Experts said that China’s push for a new navigation network was also driven by a desire to reduce its dependence on America’s GPS, particularly in its armed forces.

There are few other advantages to a country having its own GNSS network than prestige, according to Andrew Dempster, director at the Australian Center for Space Engineering Research (ACSER) at the University of New South Wales.

“To be honest with Beidou there’s nothing unique about it,” Dempster said. “It’s just this prestige thing that the Chinese want to say they’ve got it. It’s the same thing as going to the moon, planting a flag for the sake of it,” Dempster said.

History of GPS

The United States and Russia were the first to begin construction on their own GNSS navigation arrays at the height of the Cold War.

GPS was first proposed by the U.S. Department of Defense in 1973, while the Russian GLONASS system began six years later in 1979. Both were declared “fully operational” in 1995.

Most systems, such as GPS, work by using four satellites at a time to measure the distance it takes for a signal to reach a point on the ground – your smartphone for example – to calculate exactly where the point falls on a map.

China began building its navigation array in 1994. Work on Galileo started much later, but the EU network is expected to become fully operational by the end of 2020.

The US, Russian and now Chinese Beidou systems are either partially owned or operated by the military, Song said. The Galileo network is the only purely civilian GNSS system.

All four of those systems are made up of at least 20 satellites, according to GPS’s website.

Experts said that the reach and effectiveness of the current global GNSS networks leaves little justification for additional arrays to be built.

Suelynn Choy, associate professor at RMIT’s School of Science Cluster in Melbourne, said it could be useful to have an alternative if a specific GNSS network goes offline unexpectedly, as the Galileo network did in July 2019.

“From a civilian perspective it is good because we are not heavily reliant on a single system … it could cause the global economy quite a fair bit of trouble,” she said.

But the other benefit is that it gives the country a military advantage over its competitors, ASCER’s Dempster said. If an opposing army is navigating using your GNSS network, you can just switch off their signal.

Military advantages

Dempster said that while the debate has raged globally in recent years over the risks of using Chinese internet infrastructure, such as Huawei’s 5G provider, the same concerns have not applied to GNSS systems.

“It transmits a signal, you have a receiver and unless there’s some other channel, you don’t communicate back to the GPS system or the Beidou system,” he said.

However, there is a risk when militaries are using an enemy GNSS system, which the government controls can distort or just shut down as necessary.

Writing for China Brief in 2014, former intelligence officer and analyst Kevin McCauley said that for years, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had relied. mostly upon GPS for its navigation.

“But the Beidou terminals now appear to be deployed to a greater extent throughout the PLA, while providing capabilities not previously available to the Chinese military,” McCauley said.

Now that the system is complete, the PLA and the Chinese government can rely on their own navigation array.

Dempster said that this could is important to Beijing, especially as tensions with the US grow across a range of fronts.

“It would make sense for them to have their own military system because there is a conflict in the South China Sea over these islands. GPS could be denied to them and the US military could still use the military signal,” he said.

“So they’d have satellite navigation and the Chinese wouldn’t.”

Experts said China may not be just pushing Beidou as a potential civilian competitor to GPS. Already, close ally Pakistan has been grant access to the Beidou network, switching it away from the US alternative. Experts said access could be offered to countries who sign on to Beijing’s signature Belt and Road infrastructure initiatives.

“No matter which industry, a minimal error may result in wide divergence. Beidou can guarantee perfect accuracy,” Song said. ‚ÄúNavigation satellites are the best military-civilian product [cooperation].Their application value and market space are huge. “

– CNN’s Shanshan Wang contributed to this article.