October 17, 2010: Russia is finally giving its warships accurate GPS navigation, sort of. Until GPS came along two decades ago, electronic navigation aids for ships and aircraft depended on land based transmitters. This was not as accurate as GPS (showing you about 2,000 meters from where your ship really was, versus ten meters or less with GPS), and reception was more difficult at sea. Years after the U.S. retired their similar OMEGA, Russia is still using ALPHA. Officially, anyway. Russian sailors can pick up GPS receivers real cheap these days, and just carry them onto their ship. But now that the Russia believes their GLONASS system will finally be able to provide global coverage, the elderly ALPHA technology is being officially retired..
GLONASS does not yet cover the entire planet, but will soon, again. Two years ago, Russia thought it had its GPS clone, GLONASS, ready for prime time. Three more GLONASS satellites had just gone into orbit. These, in addition to those put up a few months earlier, meant there were 20 GLONASS birds up there. Russia planned to have the system operational by 2010. That plan has now fallen apart.
At the moment, there are 22 GLONASS satellite in orbit, but only sixteen of them are working. That's particularly discouraging, because 18 of the GLONASS birds must be operational to provide worldwide service. GLONASS seems to be cursed, because every time the system is about to reach full operations, something bad happens. Two years ago, it was a batch of six satellites ready for launch, that were discovered to have some serious technical flaws. Some already in orbit also had the flaw. Worse yet, the rest of the world had grown tired of waiting. Manufacturers of devices that use satellite navigation, overwhelmingly prefer to use good old, reliable, GPS. So Russia is installing GLONASS in a lot of its military equipment, along with GPS receivers. The two systems provide a backup for each other.
Russia's answer to GPS, GLONASS, was at full strength (24 satellites) in 1995, shortly after the Cold War ended in 1991. But the end of the Cold War meant the end of the regular financing for GLONASS. Maintaining the system required launching replacement satellites every 5-7 years. There was no money for that in the 1990s. By the end of 2002, only seven GLONASS birds were still operational. However, a series of launches in 2003 increased the number of active satellites to twelve, and it went to 18 by the end of 2007, and it was planned to have the full 24 birds up by 2009. Now that looks like it is going to happen next year. Maybe.
Since the 1990s, Russian military personnel have unofficially adopted GPS. But the RSDN-20 radio-technical navigation system remained in operation, and, technically, Russian ships and aircraft were supposed to use it. Systems of this type were introduced for Russian ships and aircraft in the 1960s and replaced, when the transmitters and receivers were working, the older manual methods of determining location. Russian aircraft used more accurate systems (CHAYKA), similar to the Western LORAN, but LORAN has been shutting down in many part of the world. The U.S. stopped transmitting signals for LORAN and CHAYKA equipped aircraft earlier this year. CHAYKA is mainly used in Russia, although many aircraft operators prefer GPS.