Russian “Spy Stations”: A Clear and Present Danger?
Micah McKinnis /
CIA and Pentagon officials have expressed concern that Russia’s efforts to place satellite positioning monitors throughout America pose a direct threat to U.S. national security, according to a recent report.
Russia’s satellite system, known as the Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS), is currently the only major alternative to the U.S.’s widely used GPS system. GLONASS began production before the collapse of the Soviet Union, but only recently became fully operational.
For the Russian-made system to compete with the market-dominating GPS, however, Russia needs to build additional monitoring stations around the globe. These stations, while small and seemingly insignificant, “track the GPS satellites, monitor their transmissions, perform analyses, and send commands and data to the constellation.”
In short, the more monitoring stations spread around the globe, the more accurate and reliable the satellite signals.
For example, the U.S. has 16 GPS monitoring sites around the world, including monitors in South Korea, Argentina, and Bahrain. By contrast, Russia installed its first GLONASS monitor outside Russian territory in Brasilia, Brazil, in February 2013.
Russia has been actively lobbying other countries for access. Currently, Russia is discussing the installation of GLONASS monitor stations with numerous countries, including Spain, India, and Australia. As part of the expansion, Russian officials are also lobbying for monitor installation in the U.S.
That’s where problems arise.
Although monitor stations have legitimate functions, each Russian installation could potentially be used for nefarious purposes—such as spying on the U.S. This concern has prompted U.S. intelligence officials to warn against a rash agreement, given Russia’s extensive history of espionage in the U.S. Notably, Russia has not allowed the U.S. to construct GPS monitor stations in Russia, alluding to market competition and security concerns.
In fact, prompted by the GPS’s current prominence within Russia, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin began investigating possible “U.S. [GPS monitoring] equipment in our country,” and seeks to find “where it is stationed, how many stations exist and who maintains their technical efficiency.” The investigation highlights Russia’s unwelcoming stance towards foreign competitors who threaten their burgeoning multi-billion-dollar satellite system.
Even without access to classified intelligence on the potential spying dangers, it is clear that GLONASS monitor installation leaves the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage—especially without Russian reciprocity.
The State Department sees things differently. From their perspective, allowing Russian GLONASS monitors in the U.S. would be commendable and would help restore U.S. relations with Russia, which have been frosty since the Obama Administration “reset” policy collapse.
However, premature attempts to reconcile diplomatic relations should never be allowed to override U.S. national security concerns.
Instead, U.S. government agencies, including the intelligence community and the Pentagon, should fully review potential national security threats that could arise from GLONASS installation before allowing monitoring stations to be built within American borders. Significant skepticism is warranted, as Russia has often proven untrustworthy on national security issues.
Additionally, under the principles of reciprocity, if the U.S. eventually decides to allow GLONASS stations within its borders, it should do so with the condition that an equal number of GPS monitoring stations are installed in Russia, ensuring the GPS’s continued strategic advantage.
Any future agreement should benefit the U.S. without compromising U.S. national security.
Micah McKinnis is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.