Civil air navigation plans progress on several fronts

 - December 10, 2007, 9:35 AM

Much positive news about the future of civil air navigation broke late last year. Russia and Europe signed agreements to secure the future of their respective satnav systems, Russia’s GPS-like global navigation satellite system (Glonass) and Europe’s Galileo; the White House Office of Science and Technology published a U.S. national GPS policy document; and the FAA released a promising report about the potential of the new enhanced loran, called E-loran.

The one unsettling detail was the faint shadow on the far horizon caused by the release a few months earlier of the Air Force’s “Counterspace Operations Doctrine,” which examines the steps necessary for the U.S. to nullify an adversary’s use of both U.S. and foreign space systems during a conflict.

In New Delhi on December 2, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a technical cooperation agree- ment with India aimed at rejuvenating Glonass, whose original 24 satellites had dwindled to just nine, due to their relatively short orbital lives and high replacement costs.

India, on the other hand, has developed world-class space and software industries, with successful achievements in rocket launchers, space vehicles and related technologies. Indian satellites have achieved 10-year orbital lives, while Russia’s Glonass space vehicles have rarely exceeded three, and even the country’s advanced versions were forecast to operate for only five years in space. By comparison, GPS satellites have a design life of 10 years, but some have lasted for more than 13. Possibly as a result of the new agreement, Russia simultaneously launched three Glonass satellites on December 26.

The initial Russia-India agreement is reportedly restricted to encrypted military applications, since India already plans a WAAS-like augmentation called GAGAN for civil GPS users in its airspace. However, it seems likely that once the full, 25-satellite Glonass constellation is operational–possibly by 2015–Russia will offer open, unencrypted signals, compatible with GPS and Europe’s Galileo, to the civil community.

On December 10, the European Council gave the go-ahead for construction and launch of its equivalent to GPS–the Galileo satellite navigation system. Fully compatible with GPS, and with manufacturers expected to offer combined receivers for both systems, Galileo should bring increased reliability and performance to users when it enters service in 2010.

Receiver operation is forecast to be completely “transparent,” which means that the units will automatically and continuously select the optimum combination of satellites from both systems without crew involvement. Three or four Galileo test satellites will be launched late this year or early next, but the main, 30-satellite constellation is not expected to be operational before 2012.

While the technical aspects of GPS and Galileo will be similar, the systems will differ in one key respect: European governments and private industry will jointly own the system, which will be run by a private industry consortium that will finance a substantial part of the system’s $5 billion cost. There are two reasons for this approach. First, there was the basic recognition that private industry is inherently more efficient than government in operating major systems and is at the same time free from political interference.

Second, but probably more important, the Europeans have watched the dramatic growth of the world market for U.S. satnav equipment and services–currently valued at a few billion dollars annually, but forecast to exceed $100 billion by 2020–and they want a share of this business and the 100,000 high-tech jobs it is forecast to create. (It has happened before: think Airbus.)

While there will be intense competition between the European and U.S. satnav industries–and watch for Russia, Japan and other countries to join in as well–there won’t be a Boeing/ Airbus/Ilyushin-like battle in outer space. Thanks to level heads in the nations’ respective governments and at ICAO, the mandated inter-system compatibility will produce an elegant win/win for aviation worldwide.

U.S. Strategy for GPS during Conflict
President Bush’s December announcement about GPS policy made it clear that the U.S. intends to maintain its leadership role in satellite navigation. The announcement emphasized that the U.S. will continue to offer GPS to the world free of charge, while enhancing its performance and improving its resistance to interference, but also reserves the right to prevent its use by adversaries in times of trouble.

While the policy did not envision a complete shutdown of GPS over the U.S., as had been reported, it did substantially change the overall management of the system in recognition of its now overwhelming international civil use. The DOD will still provide key strategic control and operational responsibility, but a new command structure has been established, with strong inputs from the departments of Transportation, State, Commerce and Homeland Security, as well as a number of federal agencies.

But the possibility of the disruption or loss of GPS from adversarial or other causes was also acknowledged, and the DOT was charged with “developing, acquiring, operating and maintaining backup positioning and timing capabilities that can support critical infrastructures.” In this instance, the ultra-accurate GPS timing capability, which now forms the invisible “backbone” of U.S. government and industry activity, is much more vital than positioning, since any disruption or loss of this service will have dire national economic consequences.

Loran Revival?

The GPS backup timing capability now seems likely to be loran, which is one of just two other nationwide systems that can provide GPS-like time accuracy. (The other is a thin network of atomic clocks.) Following an extensive three-year analysis, the DOT reported in December that “The modernized loran system can satisfy the current nonprecision approach, harbor entrance approaches and timing/ frequency requirements in the [contiguous] U.S. and could be used to mitigate the operational effects of a disruption in GPS services, thereby allowing the users to retain the benefits they derive from their use of GPS.” The NPA standard in the evaluation was set at achieving RNP 0.3 performance, and a similar standard was set for maritime harbor entrance approaches.

Loran advocates, both in the U.S. and abroad, welcomed the report as vindicating their efforts to see the system, now dubbed E-loran, officially adopted as an autonomous backup to GPS when integrated into satnav receivers. Rockwell Collins and Free Flight have already flight-tested such units.

But since loran is essentially operated on a year-by-year basis, mainly supported by Congress, which routinely authorizes between $22 and $25 million each year for modernization upgrades, the industry wants to see it achieve more permanent status, to encourage equipment production and user adoption. Overseas nations with loran networks are also eager to see the U.S. take the initiative, to justify extension plans, although the UK recently announced that it will increase Europe’s loran network by installing a new loran transmitter at Rugby, in central England.

But not everyone is entirely pleased about the expansion of the world’s space capabilities. Noting that by 2020 there will be 30 GPS satellites, 30 Galileo satellites and 25 Glonass satellites orbiting the earth, one Pentagon official remarked, “That’s exactly 55 too many.” The DOD, of course, has a charter different from most and finds the proliferation of foreign-owned spaceborne assets worrisome.

But it is not just foreign-operated navigation satellites that worry the DOD. In their “Counterspace Operations Doctrine” report published last fall, military planners describe their concerns about weather, communications, surface mapping, missile warning and the many other types of satellites that could be of value to a potential adversary, and discuss the ways to neutralize them. It’s a sobering, perhaps even disturbing, document, and yet it’s also an essential doctrine as the 21st century unfolds. It is available at