GPS, or the Global Positioning System, is the oldest and most widely used satellite navigation system in the world with 6 billion users. GPS is owned by the U.S. government and run by the Space Force, an independent military branch that’s organized under the U.S. Air Force. GPS was initially designed as a military tool and is used for things like missile guidance and drone operation. But the technology has also become indispensable to the lives of civilians.
“If we had an attack on the system, you know, it could really bring so many areas of our logistics and our supply chain, even farming, our transportation system, our airplane system to a grinding halt,” says Rep. Mikie Sherill (D-N.J.), who is also a co-chair on the House GPS Caucus.
But the U.S. is not the only country with its own global navigation satellite system. Russia has GLONASS and the European Union has Galileo. The latest entrant is China’s Beidou constellation. Historically, the world of satellite navigation technology has been collaborative, with each country, or group of countries in the case of Galileo, offering use of their respective systems to the international community for free.
But China has understood the importance of having its own global navigation system for years, says Sarah Sewall, who served as the Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights before becoming an executive at venture firm, In-Q-tel.
“The Chinese have said that when they lost the ability to track missiles that they had launched in one of the altercations during the Taiwan Straits crisis, they decided that that was a real wake up call and that they needed to have their own system in order to be able to ensure continued coverage, the degree of accuracy that they wanted, and to not be relying on another nation for something that was so vital for their military operations.”
But experts say China’s Beidou system is about more than just military might. As GPS did for the U.S., Beidou is spurring massive economic development in China, to the tune of $156 billion by 2025 according to Chinese state media. Plus, it’s helping the country garner global influence.
“China has tied the export of many of its other forms of infrastructure to the kinds of positioning, navigation and timing data that it provides from Beidou. And it integrates that with China’s 5G offerings and it subsidizes that through its Belt and Road and Digital Silk Road initiatives,” Sewall says.
To find out more about China’s Beidou satellite navigation system, what implications it may have for the world, and how the U.S. is working to bolster its own GPS constellation, watch the video.