America is losing its GPS dominance to China’s BeiDou satnav

Sean Gorman

In the 20th century, the United States vied with the Soviet Union for space supremacy. Now, in the new century, America has a different rival — China — and a key battle is already brewing in the critical area of satellite navigation (satnav). Right now, the U.S. is falling behind.

While GPS was once the undisputed king of satnav (and a key instrument of American soft power), it now has a growing list of Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) competitors – from China’s BeiDou to the European Union’s Galileo, Russia’s GLONASS and even India’s regional system, NavIC.

Without question, the most significant rival comes from China, as the country is actively seeking to displace GPS as the world’s dominant satnav system and, in so doing, to increase its own soft power influence on the nations that use it. The National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing Advisory Board (PNTAB) warned that “GPS’s capabilities are now substantially inferior to those of China’s BeiDou” and urged the U.S. to regain PNT leadership over the next decade.

Why the U.S. is falling behind

While China and the EU have been investing heavily in their GNSS systems, the U.S. military is only making modest improvements to GPS. 

The U.S. is currently replacing 1990s-era GPS satellites with newer GPS 3 satellites. However, GPS 3 is not a trailblazing technology. Originally intended to launch in 2014, these satellites offer only moderate improvements to GPS 2, such as an upgraded accuracy of 1 to 3 meters. This is less than what Galileo can provide. GPS 3 will eventually be followed by GPS 3F, which is expected to provide additional capabilities such as the first completely digital navigation payload. However, GPS 3F could take until the mid-2030s to be completed.

The military’s next-generation PNT system, known as NTS-3, is still only in the R&D phase, with the first test satellite to deploy no sooner than late this year. It is unclear how long it will take before NTS-3 is fully operational.

BeiDou’s advantages over GPS 

With 56 satellites in orbit, China’s BeiDou is now nearly twice the size of GPS. It also has over ten times as many monitoring stations, many of which are in developing nations. 

BeiDou’s larger size is a critical advantage over GPS. Belfer Center report notes that BeiDou’s larger constellation offers greater PNT data availability and, in some cases, greater accuracy in many areas of the world. This is especially the case in the developing countries in Africa and Southeast Asia which have been historically underserved by GPS. Nikkei Asia reported in 2020 that BeiDou “eclipses” GPS in 165 countries. 

China also has ambitious plans to enhance BeiDou’s accuracy, security and reliability even further, in part by launching low-Earth orbit (LEO) constellations and by implementing new inertial sensors and future technologies like quantum navigation. 

The risks of non-U.S. satnav supremacy

While the U.S. and Europe are pursuing a more cooperative approach to GNSS, China sees it as a zero-sum game tied to its larger geopolitical strategy.

As has been noted by multiple international affairs organizations, BeiDou is now a critical element of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to increase the country’s soft power influence, technological leadership and economic relationships across key regions to the detriment of its rivals. 

From the U.S. standpoint, China’s so-called Space Silk Road, or space information corridor, poses significant risks. The primary concern is that in supplanting GPS’s position as the dominant global satnav service, BeiDou will erode America’s political and economic influence in key regions. Establishing GNSS dominance will consolidate China’s hold on global infrastructure, creating new and stronger dependencies on Chinese technologies, infrastructure, services and diplomacy in various regions. As BeiDou-integrated technologies become more embedded within a country’s infrastructure and economy, China’s influence will increase at the expense of U.S. influence. In future diplomatic, trade or military disputes, these countries will be more vulnerable to intimidation. China could threaten to cut off access to this vital service, which could have a significant impact on a country’s satnav capabilities, especially if it is not using multi-constellation infrastructure. The U.S. is already losing influence in key strategic regions like Africa where great power competition is increasing over such issues as rare earth minerals.

The U.S. is also concerned that China could use BeiDou as a platform for conducting espionage and other malicious activities inside these countries. While the satellite system itself is unlikely to be used this way, there is a potential risk with Chinese-made receivers and other equipment. A key part of China’s BeiDou system is installing Chinese-supplied ground monitoring stations and Continuous Operating Reference Stations, especially in developing countries. According to the Belfer Center report, 11 sub-Saharan nations have already received China’s reference stations, while another four countries (Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Indonesia and Myanmar) have authorized installation. These ground-based systems and interconnected Chinese GNSS receivers could in theory contain backdoors and other malicious capabilities that could be used by China’s government (or, to provide plausible deniability, its companies) to carry out espionage, surveillance, data theft, interference and cyber attacks. 

America is facing a pivotal moment with the splintering of GNSS and the rise of China’s GPS competitor. If BeiDou’s progress is not matched by GPS or some other U.S. service, it will have a significant impact on American global soft power and the role of the U.S. in determining the standards and rulemaking for key emerging technologies. 

While the U.S. is making an effort to update GPS, it is already at a distinct disadvantage to BeiDou in terms of global PNT data availability, and soon it could fall behind BeiDou in overall accuracy, signal strength and security. While the U.S. does have a growing number of commercial partners with LEO communications satellites in orbit, which could become effective GPS alternatives, there are decided disadvantages to relying on for-profit instead of public GPS — the most important of which is cost. Unless the U.S. moves quickly to prioritize GPS innovation, the technological balance of power could shift toward China.

Sean Gorman is the CEO and co-founder of Zephr, a developer of next-gen location-based solutions. Gorman has spent more than 20 years as a researcher, entrepreneur, academic and subject matter expert in the field of geospatial data science and its national security implications. He is the former engineering manager for Snap’s Map team, former Chief Strategist for ESRI’s DC Development Center, founder of Pixel8earth, GeoIQ and Timbr.io, and held other senior positions at Maxar and iXOL. Gorman served as a subject matter expert for the DHS Critical Infrastructure Task Force and Homeland Security Advisory Council; he’s briefed the NSA, CIA, DIA, White House, TSA, NGA and the Federal Reserve; and he’s been awarded two DARPA research contracts. He is also a former research professor at George Mason University. 

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