- - Wednesday, December 28, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

GPS officially off the ground

China this month took a major step forward in completing its first global satellite navigation system, known as the Compass, or Beidou, Navigation Satellite System. The 10th satellite in the system, Beidou IGSO 5, was launched Dec. 1 and joined the many other Chinese positioning and tracking assets in outer space that were launched since 2000.

Beijing hopes the system will rival the U.S. Global Positioning System.

The Chinese satellite is expected to be at an inclined geosynchronous orbit about 22,000 miles above the Earth. With the successful launch, China’s version of GPS became officially operational.

Chinese government spokesman Ran Cheng announced Tuesday that China is now offering positioning and tracking service free to everyone worldwide, especially China’s neighboring nations covered by Compass satellites.

While the U.S. and Europe are retreating from their expensive space programs, China is steadfastly on track with its ambition to control the world’s satellite positioning and tracking services. The program is being implemented with seemingly unlimited backing by the Chinese government. In this year alone, China conducted 19 space launches and placed 21 spacecraft, including three Compass satellites, into orbit.

Zhao Xiaojin, China’s Cabinet-level space program chief, stated Tuesday in Beijing that the communist state’s goal is to conduct 20 space launches every year through 2015. By the end of its five-year plan, China would have another 100 satellites in orbit. Mr. Zhao also revealed that China plans to launch more than 30 satellites for its Compass system by 2020 to cover the entire globe. The system now covers China and peripheral regions in the East, Southeast and Central Asia. Compass is expected, within a few months, to reach an accuracy level of about 33 feet, about the same as the accuracy level of the GPS. It can measure speeds accurate to 10 nanoseconds.

The major beneficiary of the Compass system is China’s military, which will be far less dependent on the world’s three other positioning systems, the U.S.-run GPS, the European Union’s nascent Galileo and the Russian system called Glosnass. In addition to navigation, such systems are used for missile guidance.

The Chinese official publication Fazhi Evening News reported Tuesday that, with the Compass system in operation, “the combat capabilities and military efficiency of the People’s Liberation Army have increased by 100 to 1,000 times,” and “the cost effectiveness of the PLA by 10 to 50 times.”

That is presumably because the system can greatly enhance the PLA’s cruise missile terrain contour targeting capabilities, and guidance and control for its rapidly developing aerial drone fleet, without depending on the U.S. GPS that can be turned off when a war involving China starts.

GPS is one-directional, meaning a user’s terminal needs to receive the signal only from the satellites and does not require the user’s terminal to “talk” back to the satellites or ground control, thus giving out the user’s position and private data.

However, China’s Compass user terminal is two-directional, which is tracked closely by the satellites and the military-run ground control, making its civilian use much less desirable because it is more of a control mechanism than a user-friendly service in a country that excels at social and political control. Compass has about 100,000 domestic civilian users in China, and all of China’s military relies heavily on the sophisticated tracking system.

Military year in review

The official Xinhua News Agency on Dec. 19 published a comprehensive “Chinese Military Year in Review.”

Topping the list of key developments in 2011 are China’s robust weapons advances, including the refitting and sea trials of the first aircraft carrier the Varyag and first test flight of the newest stealth jet fighter, the J-20.

Also prominently mentioned is the People’s Liberation Army’s intensified “all-directional, broadly based and multilevel” active military outreach to other parts of the world, including the resumption of military-to-military visits between Washington and Beijing. The report also discussed the PLA’s frequent posturing and visits among the militaries of many of China’s neighboring countries, especially those in or near the contentious South China Sea.

However, sizable space is devoted to lauding the PLA’s operational involvement in various key trouble spots around the globe, including China’s busy counterterrorism, naval and ground exercises with several countries, especially with allies Pakistan, Indonesia and Belarus.

But the military’s involvement in the swift and successful evacuations of more than 30,000 Chinese citizens from war-torn Libya in the early months of 2011 was particularly touted as a major accomplishment of China’s long-range operational capabilities.

Miles Yu’s column appears Thursdays. He can be reached at mmilesyu@gmail.com.

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