Russia Threatens to Shut Down GPS Receivers Inside Russia over Ukraine Sanctions

If carried through, will hurt both science and Russia

Part of the fallout of the current disagreement between the U.S. and Russia over Russia’s annexation of the Crimea has been the threat by Russia to turn off GPS receivers within its borders. As part of my investigation, I quickly discovered there are two issues: one is real ground stations that are used to monitor and control GNSS satellites. The other is GNSS receivers within Russia that are being used by IGS for scientific observations. The lack of GLONASS ground stations is what caused the recent GLONASS outage to last for 11 hours. More about that HERE

GPS has several ground stations spread around the world, and the US has never asked Russia for the right to install a station within Russia’s borders, so it seems to me that Russia’s demand to install GLONASS ground stations within U.S. borders is unreasonable. Some feel that Russia would use these stations to spy on the U.S. Given what these stations do, I believe this fear is unwarranted.

To learn more, I turned to Javad Ashjaee, the CEO of JAVAD GNSS and the person responsible for introducing GLONASS to the world outside Russia, and he said: "IGS is helping GLONASS. If IGS stops helping GLONASS, it will be damage to IGS, not the 11 stations that are in Russia." He went on to say, "1,000 stations are helping both GPS and GLONASS. If we lose 11 stations, not a big deal. If GLONASS loses support of 1,000 stations, it is a big deal for them." Stated another way, what Javad is saying is that GNSS depends on and benefits from both constellations, and removing the GPS observations from an area as large as Russia would help no one.

International GNSS Service
So, what is IGS? According to its website, the International GNSS Service (IGS) is a voluntary federation of more than 200 worldwide agencies that pool resources and permanent GPS & GLONASS station data to generate precise GPS & GLONASS products. The IGS is committed to providing the highest quality data and products as the standard for Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) in support of Earth science research, multidisciplinary applications, and education. Currently the IGS includes two GNSS, GPS and the Russian GLONASS, and intends to incorporate future GNSS. You can think of the IGS as the highest-precision international civilian GPS community.

IGS creates these products:
• GPS satellite ephemerides
• GLONASS satellite ephemerides
• Earth rotation parameters
• IGS tracking station coordinates and velocities
• GPS satellite and IGS tracking station clock information
• Zenith tropospheric path delay estimates
• Global ionospheric maps

Most notable for surveyors is the post processed orbit information of the satellites and development of the ITRF. More information about the IGS mission can be found here:

I inquired to Urs Hugentobler, the Chair of Governing Board of IGS, about the Russian threat and he said, "I cannot yet give much insight. I am also reading the news on the topic. A quick count gives 18 IGS stations in Russia on 15 different locations (but one has to check more carefully which of those are active). Most of these stations are operated by Russian Agencies. I thus also do not know what agreement is referred to.

"The IGS network, operated with the support of more than 200 organizations worldwide, consists of some 450 tracking stations. A loss of 11 stations would therefore not be a serious issue for the IGS to fulfil its mission. On the other hand, if indeed IGS stations would be meant, we may lose the large territory of Siberia which took long to be populated with GNSS stations. Currently we are still missing real-time stations in Russia. The impact of losing Siberian stations would probably mainly be on the reference frame (Eurasian plate) and on the ionosphere product."

International Business Times Article
According to an article by Thomas Halleck in the International Business Times, 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 every day 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 (Cheves notes: this is not technically correct. To find out what the ground control segment really does, go HERE). “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 par
t, 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.” (Cheves notes: Huh? Any system involved in GPS will have its own self-contained power capability and the US will do everything in its power to keep these ground stations from being "knocked out".)

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.”

Thomas Halleck is a technology reporter for the International Business Times, covering Google, wearables, product reviews, gadget news and more.