Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Russians upstage Galileo

Despite the delay, The Telegraph yesterday heralded tomorrow's expected launch of the first experimental Galileo satellite, code-named Giove A.

Due originally to be launched on Boxing Day, but delayed two days without explanation, the British-built satellite is due to be fired into orbit on a Soyuz rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

Says The Telegraph, repeating EU propaganda, the system is designed to end the dependence of European satellite navigation users on GPS - a system the US military reserves the right to limit or to shut off at will. There are expected to be more than 400 million satellite navigation users by 2015 and the project should create 100,000 jobs.

But what is far more interesting – for the moment – is that while the Europeans are getting excited out their new project, the Russian Federation snuck in on Christmas Day, with the launch of three Glonass satellites – its equivalent of the GPS system – also launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, but on a Proton K rocket.

The first Glonass satellite was put into orbit in 1982, but the system was officially launched in 1993 and has since decayed from the original 24 satellites, to a mere 14, severely degrading the availability of the service.

Now, the Russians plan to restore the system to full functionality, flying 24 satellites – officially by 2010. But, in a surprise development, Russian premier Vladimir Putin has intervened, stating that he wanted the system ready before 2008.

At one time, the Europeans had hopes that Russia would abandon Glonass and throw its lot in with the Galileo system, together with the China, India, Ukraine, Israel and Argentina.

But the Federation, which unlike the EU makes no pretences of the military applications of the system, is clearly not prepared to trust this key strategic capability to the Europeans. Apart from placing control of its own military assets in the hands of foreign powers, the lack of an independent system also hampers arms sales – on which the Russian economy greatly relies. Client states would not be able to rely on continuity of signal if provided by a third party. Russia has, therefore, opted for a unilateral solution, despite the additional cost.

What is especially puzzling though is why Putin is so keen to have the full system up and running two years earlier than currently planned. One possibility is that he wants to keep abreast of the Europeans, who also plan to have Galileo operational by 2008. Another possibility is that he anticipates either his own or client state forces needing to use the system in anger in little more than two years.

Whatever else, the Russians are not likely to be doing this for the fun of it, so this is definitely one to watch.


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