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GPS Expert Dismisses Russian Threat To Suspend Operations

Soon to be redundant? A GPS navigation device in a car in Ivanovo, Russia. (file photo)
Soon to be redundant? A GPS navigation device in a car in Ivanovo, Russia. (file photo)
One of the creators of the U.S.-based Global Positioning System (GPS) has dismissed a threat by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dimitry Rogozin to suspend the work of U.S. ground systems in Russia, saying it would not have any effect on users, except for possibly Russians themselves.

"GPS is fundamentally a passive system. There's no way the Russians can 'shut down GPS operations,' in Russia or any place else, short of actually jamming the signal," Bradford Parkinson, professor emeritus of aeronautics at Stanford University, told RFE/RL. "It won't have any direct effect on general users because satellites continue to orbit the Earth and broadcast the signal free."

Rogozin said on May 13 that the work of 11 GPS ground stations in Russia could be suspended as of June 1 He further threatened that if an agreement to allow the Russian equivalent of GPS -- called GLONASS -- to operate in the United States was not reached by September 1, the stations would "be permanently terminated."

"We’re starting negotiations, which will last for three months," Rogozin said. "We hope that, by the end of summer, these talks will bring a solution that will allow our cooperation to be restored on the basis of parity and proportionality."

The CIA and Pentagon have viewed the prospect of GLONASS stations in the United States skeptically, believing they could potentially enhance the accuracy of satellite-guided weapons and help Moscow spy on the United States, "The New York Times" reported in November.

GLONASS has been plagued by outages in recent weeks, one of which lasted nearly 11 hours.

"They have not gone out and explained what the problem is and whether the user is apt to see that same thing happen again," said Parkinson, adding that he was not opposed to the Russian system.

Parkinson, who led the project to create the GPS system in the 1970s, said closing the Russian stations could have an effect only in terms of fine levels of accuracy, "when you are trying to get accuracies ranging down to perhaps centimeters or better," he said. "And so, if he were to indeed shut such differential stations down, the people he's going to be harming are his own people. The GPS itself does not rely on any reference stations within Russian territory.

"That's like a guy saying to the rest of the town, 'I'm going to really ruin you -- I'm going to turn off my own water,'" Parkinson joked. "Have at it. Let me know how it turns out."

He said it was "tragic" that Russia would use GPS as a "political lever."

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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