China’s GPS rival Beidou is now fully operational after the launch of the final satellite

To date, there are only four main GNSS networks: GPS (USA), 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 aircraft and container ships around the world.

Beidou is China’s alternative system. Named after the Chinese word for the constellation Big Dipper, it has taken nearly two decades to complete.

There are hopes in China that Beidou could be a global competitor for GPS, but the United States option still has “absolute market share,” said Song Zhongping, a Chinese military expert who has worked with the Ministry of Civil Affairs and the Commission. National Development and Reform Institute of China. .

Experts said China’s push for a new navigation network was also fueled by a desire to reduce its dependence on the United States’ GPS, particularly in its military.

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

“To be honest with Beidou, there is nothing unique about that,” said Dempster. “It is just this prestigious thing that the Chinese want to say they have. It is the same as going to the moon, planting a flag for good,” Dempster said.

GPS history

The United States and Russia were the first to start building their own GNSS navigation matrices at the height of the Cold War.

GPS was first proposed by the United States 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, like GPS, work by using four satellites at once to measure the distance it takes for a signal to reach a point on the ground, for example your smartphone, to calculate exactly where that point falls on a Map.

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

The Beidou Systems of the USA The US, Russia and now China are partially owned or operated by the military, Song said. The Galileo network is the only purely civil GNSS system.

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

Experts said the scope and effectiveness of today’s global GNSS networks leave little justification for building additional matrices.

Suelynn Choy, Associate Professor of the RMIT School of Science Cluster in Melbourne, said it may be helpful to have an alternative if a specific GNSS network is unexpectedly disconnected, as the Galileo network did in July 2019.

“From a civil perspective, it is good because we do not rely heavily on a single system … it could cause quite a bit of trouble for the global economy,” he said.

But the other benefit is that it gives the operating country a military advantage over its competitors, ASCER’s Dempster said. If an enemy army is navigating with your GNSS network, you can disable its signal.

Military advantages

Dempster said that while a global debate over the risks of using Chinese internet infrastructure, as the provider of 5G Huawei, has erupted in recent years, the same concerns do not apply to GNSS systems.

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

However, there is a risk when the military is using the GNSS system of an enemy country, which the controlling government may distort or simply 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 (EPL) had relied primarily on GPS for navigation.

“But Beidou terminals now appear to be more widely deployed across the PLA, while providing capabilities that were previously unavailable to the Chinese military,” said McCauley.

Now that the system is complete, the PLA and the Chinese government can trust their own navigation matrix.

Dempster said this could be important to Beijing, especially as tensions with the US USA they grow on a variety of fronts.

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

“Then they would have satellite navigation and the Chinese would not.”

Experts said China may not only be putting pressure on Beidou as a potential civil competitor to GPS. Already, close ally Pakistan has been granted access to the Beidou network, distancing it from the American alternative. Experts said access could be offered to countries that sign Beijing’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiatives.

“No matter what industry, minimal error can lead to wide divergence. Beidou can guarantee perfect precision,” Song said. “Navigation satellites are the best military and civilian products [cooperation]. Its application value and market space are enormous. “

– CNN’s Shanshan Wang contributed to this article.