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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

U.S. Navigation Satellites Help China, Pentagon Says

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 20, 1998; Page A02

While congressional Republicans investigate whether the sale and launching of U.S. communications satellites in China helped Beijing improve its intercontinental ballistic missile system, critics of the Clinton policy have overlooked the U.S.-built worldwide navigational satellite system that already has helped Beijing increase the accuracy of its weapons, according to the Defense Department.

China is using the Global Positioning System (GPS) -- as the 21-satellite, U.S. system is called -- "to improve the accuracy of its weapons and the situational awareness of its operations forces," according to a report sent by the Pentagon to Congress last year.

The report said the Chinese aircraft industry, for instance, "is pursuing the integration of GPS into its new fighter aircraft," and that "GPS updates will enable China to make significant improvements in its missile capabilities."

Weighing the comparative usefulness to the Chinese of technology from the GPS and from U.S. satellite launches, John Pike, director of the space policy project at the Federation of American Scientists, said, "On a scale of one to ten, GPS is a six and U.S. satellite sales and launches are less than one."

The case of GPS illustrates to some extent the inherent ambiguity of certain technology, which governments can use for civilian or military purposes. Defenders of the Clinton satellite policy say the same holds for communications satellites purchased by the Chinese, making some "dual use" inevitable. Critics of the policy say that such ambiguity calls for tighter controls.

With the global positioning system, a receiver on the ground, which captures transmissions of continuous codes from two or three satellites, can determine its location anywhere in the world at any time. If it takes in transmissions of publicly available codes from three satellites, its location can be pinpointed to within about 100 yards, according to Pike.

Each satellite also transmits a more accurate code for use by U.S. military units and weapons systems, according to Pike. This more accurate transmission, which can only be received by specially equipped receivers, identifies a location to within roughly 10 yards, Pike said. This encrypted channel is used to help guide U.S. missiles and aircraft as well as pinpoint the exact locations of military forces, sources said.

Pike said the United States decided in the late 1970s to put the navigational system in orbit and make it publicly available as a way of discouraging other countries from launching their own systems.

"This way we could control the best operating system," Pike said. In times of warfare, the publicly available channel can be jammed or "degraded," Pike said.

Only the Soviet Union, with its Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS), has put a similar system in space, and it is far less accurate than GPS. The Russians provided the Chinese with technology to build receivers that took in not only GLONASS but also GPS signals, according to administration sources.

Since both systems went into operation in the late 1980s, countries and companies around the world have made use of them by building everything from devices used on pleasure boats and commercial aircraft to more sophisticated receivers that have military potential.

The Pentagon study noted that "China's military-industrial complex has entered into joint ventures with foreign firms to produce GPS receivers which may find their way to military weapons."

During the Bush administration, some products related to GPS were removed from the munitions list and licensed for sales overseas. More sophisticated items remained restricted, however.

A senior congressional intelligence expert said Republican critics recognize that GPS is readily available and provides help to the Chinese and others but added, "We can turn it off in the event of hostilities and that's important."

"If we could yank back all the technology the Chinese have gotten from these transfers or make them ineffective, it would be the same thing," he said. However, he added that in the event of war the United States could jam the satellites that had been sold to China and probably intercept messages sent to or from them.

The Pentagon is considering adding a new, encrypted channel to the GPS system to prevent its signals from being jammed. When the new military channel is completed, the administration will decide whether to make the current, more accurate transmissions available publicly.

The 1997 Pentagon report said that "GPS updates will provide the potential to significantly improve missile accuracy through midcourse guidance correction." It added that updates would also increase the "operational flexibility" of a solid-fuel, mobile ICBM that the Chinese have had under development for almost 10 years.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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