When China launched Long March 3B on June 24, it was China’s ninth successful launch in 2019 and the country’s latest move to develop their own advanced positioning, navigation, and timing system the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (BDS).

It also was the latest show of power from China’s National Space Administration. In early January 2019, China became the first country in history to complete a soft landing on the dark side of the moon. Since then, the China National Space Administration has shifted their focus back to the BeiDou system.

Concepts for BeiDou were first realised in 1983 and initiated 10 years later in 1994. China aimed to replicate other global positioning systems around the world.

The program’s first launch came in October 2000, followed by a second launch in December of the same year. Those satellites remained in orbit for 10 years before being retired in December of 2011, marking the end of the experimental period.

In the BDS-2 phase, the system featured five geostationary satellites and 30 non-geostationary satellites. However, that phase ended in 2009.

Now, the system has moved to the third phase, which will feature 24 middle-earth orbit satellites, three geostationary satellites, and three inclined geosynchronous orbits. The system currently has 33 satellites in orbit. The plan is to finalise the program in 2020 with 35 satellites in orbit.

Both the geostationary and inclined geosynchronous satellites will orbit the Earth at about 22,300 miles above the equator. However, the key difference between the two is that the inclined geosynchronous won’t be on the same plane as the equator.

China has a long list of possible uses that BeiDou will provide, those uses include: transportation, marine fisheries, hydrological monitoring, weather forecasting, surveying and mapping, forest fire prevention, emergency search and rescue, and power dispatching.

Security Implications

The 2017 U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) research report details the implications the BeiDou system will have on the United States global positioning systems. According to the report, China’s has three incentives to create their own positioning, navigation, and timing system.

“China has sought to field its own satellite navigation system in order to (1) address national security requirements by ending military reliance on GPS; (2) build a commercial downstream satellite navigation industry to take advantage of the quickly expanding market; and (3) achieve domestic and international prestige by fielding one of only four such global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) yet developed,” the USCC report read.

The goal is for the BeiDou system to replicate other navigation system technologies.

“Our goal in the future is to establish China’s integrated navigation and positioning facilities and service system, expected to be realised in 2030, the potential goal of development for our fourth generation of BeiDou,” Yang Changfeng, the chief designer of BeiDou, told the China National Administration of GNSS and Applications in 2018.

“To benefit mankind and serve the world, this is one of my biggest goals,”

The BeiDou system is the fourth largest in the world behind America’s GPS, European Union’s Galileo, and Russia’s GLONASS.

In the USCC report, the accuracy of the BeiDou system was addressed.

“BeiDou will provide positioning accuracies of under ten meters worldwide, improved in China to one meter, and even centimetres in some areas with the use of a forthcoming ‘differential BeiDou’ system, which will use a network of thousands of ground stations to boost accuracy,” the report said.

While it depends on a number of factors, America’s GPS currently is as accurate as 4.6 meters on smartphones.

GPS holds an advantage in time transfer relative to United Time Coordinated (UTC). According www.gps.gov, America provides accurate information that is greater than or equal to 40 nanoseconds. BeiDou provides the same amount of accurate information in 50 nanoseconds, according to navipedia.com.

Despite being similar to the United States’ GPS, BeiDou has a flaw, according to a report in Asia Times. BeiDou will use a two-way transmission system and will be dependent on satellites broadcasting signals to Earth and devices signalling back. America’s GPS does not have to transmit signals to the satellites.

While the programs look to rival each other, the two countries have cooperated.

In May of 2014, China and the United States announced a bilateral government-to-government agreement to cooperate related to compatibility and interoperability according to gps.gov.

Despite the agreement, the USCC report concludes that the implementation of China’s system will impact the United States.

“China’s development and promotion of BeiDou presents implications for the United States in security, economic, and diplomatic areas,” the report read. “It is of foremost importance in allowing China’s military to employ BeiDou-guided conventional strike weapons—the buildup of which has been a central feature of Beijing’s efforts to counter a U.S. intervention in a potential contingency if access to GPS is denied.”

The report continued: “Just as GPS was originally driven by military objectives, China made the determination to develop Beidou based on perceived security requirements.”

In the 2015 USCC report to Congress, reasoning for the military force-driven objectives were detailed.

“The Peoples Liberation Army has considered this dependence on a foreign PNT system to be a strategic vulnerability since at least the mid-1980s. These fears were exacerbated during the 1995–1996 Taiwan Straits Crisis.” the report said.

“According to a retired PLA General, the PLA concluded that an unexpected disruption to GPS caused the PLA to lose track of some of the ballistic missiles it fired into the Taiwan Strait during the crisis.” The incident reportedly embarrassed the PLA.

“A retired PLA General then said that ‘it was a great shame for the PLA … an unforgettable humiliation. That’s how we made up our mind to develop our own global satellite navigation and positioning system, no matter how huge the cost. BeiDou is a must for us. We learned it the hard way,’” the report noted.

According to Space Flight Now, when the system is complete, BeiDou will have eight satellites in geosynchronous orbit, being the only country to do so.

Having satellites in geosynchronous orbits will benefit BeiDou with the ability to focus on one spot and follow the spin rate of the Earth.

The implementation of the BeiDou system has led to some fear among the U.S. officials, according to the USCC.

The 2017 report described some potential threats.

“The concern has also been raised that BeiDou could pose a security risk by allowing China’s government to track users of the system by deploying malware transmitted through either its navigation signal or messaging function (via a satellite communication channel), once the technology is in widespread use,” the report said.

Despite these potential threats, industry professionals “are not aware of ways to feasibly transmit malware throughout a navigation signal,” the report added.

“As BeiDou-equipped smartphones become more prevalent, U.S. consumers should know there are no inherent risks to receiving BeiDou signals when the satellite communication function is not included,” the report read.

The report also detailed growth of the program, noting that in 2017 China planned to expand BeiDou capabilities to countries in the “One Belt, One Road,” initiative.

Not only is China planning to expand, they are also giving countries incentives to use the technology.

The USCC concluded that “China signed a roughly 2 billion yuan ($297 million) agreement with Thailand in 2013, reportedly funded most by Beijing as part of its foreign aid program to promote the use of BeiDou in Thailand’s public sector.” The report also said China plans to seek an access of about 1,000 ground stations in South Asia to improve accuracy.

In Thailand, China saw the country as an “ideal starting point as its (Thailand’s) heavy reliance on GPS would allow China to demonstrate that ‘BeiDou can do anything GPS does,’” according to the report.

Since then, China has agreed to roll out programs in Pakistan, Brunei, and Laos.

However, China isn’t the only country in South Asia currently pursuing their own navigation system. India is also making progress toward their own system.

There’s a key difference: India’s is designed to cover only India, according to Robert Zimmerman of the website Behind the Black.

“China is marketing theirs to cover the world like Russia, United States and the European Union, to compete with our systems,” Zimmerman noted on the John Batchelor show, December 1, 2018.

However, according to the 2017 USCC report, GPS and BeiDou won’t necessarily be competing.

“In economic terms, GPS and BeiDou signals are both provided for free and are not in ‘competition’ for market share,” the report read. “This development will bring greater accuracy to consumers at minimal marginal cost and is supported by governments around the world.”