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Santa brings 3 more sats for Putin's GPS rival

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Russia's rival to the American Global Positioning System (GPS) satnav constellation successfully launched three more satellites on Xmas day, which will bring it to a total of 18 operational spacecraft. Mirroring the popularity of consumer GPS-enabled devices in the West, Russian developers demonstrated GLONASS based car satnav to Russian premier Vladimir Putin on Saturday. It was also announced that GLONASS pet tracker devices would debut in 2008.

The GLONASS (Global Navigation Satellite System) is expected to reach full global capability in 2010, according to reports by the Russian RIA Novosti news agency. At that stage it will have 24 operational satellites including three on-orbit spares.

GLONASS actually started off as a contemporary of GPS during the Cold War, with both systems primarily driven by a perceived need to increase the accuracy of intercontinental nuclear missiles. This might seem a bit irrelevant in the case of hydrogen bombs capable of devastating an entire city, but planners of the period were much concerned about their ability to destroy underground, hardened enemy missile silos. Even powerful warheads needed to hit close to their aiming points for such "counter-force" strikes, and existing inertial/astro navigation systems couldn't - still can't - manage this.

This is why critics of the UK's Trident nukes assert that they are dependent on US satellite support. The missiles can't do accurate counter-force silo targeting without GPS, which can be turned off at times and places of the Americans' choosing; though they can still wipe out cities perfectly well. (This is also true of French weapons, in fact - one reason why the French military is keen on the nascent European Galileo system.)

GPS began to reach full coverage just as the Cold War wound down, but GLONASS development was badly held back by the Russian economic and military collapse of the 1990s. At times, a bare handful of operational GLONASS birds were in orbit, and useability was correspondingly poor.

Meanwhile, many new applications for GPS were discovered. The satnav system nowadays guides conventional cruise missiles and smart bombs as well as ICBMs, and has many other military applications. As prices have fallen and military limitations on civil GPS have been removed, more and more civil uses have appeared too.

Now a resurgent Kremlin, enriched by its recent seizures in the Russian oil and gas sector, is pressing ahead with GLONASS. The system already offers good coverage in Russia, and will in a few years cover the world. The government has sought to emphasise the cuddly and civil-apps side of this over the holiday season, with Vladimir Putin saying that he would buy a GLONASS tracker for his black Labrador Connie ahead of the most recent launch. (The Putin pooch featured in a children's book, "Connie's Stories", which has been widely distributed in Russia over the past two years.)

The event at which Mr Putin was shown the GLONASS car-nav unit was in fact a meeting of the Russian Security Council. It seems likely that the imminent approach of worldwide, independent counter-force/high-accuracy targeting for Russian strategic-rocket forces - a thing never really achieved in the Cold War - was also mentioned.

Relevant RIA Novosti articles are here and here. A slightly misleading Reuters report - which implies that the last three GLONASS birds have now been launched - is here

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