PEDRO LADEIRA/AFP/Getty Images
A Russian technician of the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos) looks at a monitor during the inauguration of a system for monitoring and correction, part of the Russian Global System of Satellite Navigation (GLONASS), at Brasilia's University, in Brasilia on February 19, 2013. This GLONASS station, the first built outside Russia, is an important step to improve the efficiency of its navigation system -- Russia's new rival to the US-made Global Position Service (GPS).
WASHINGTON — In the view of America’s spy services, the next potential threat from Russia may not come from a nefarious cyberweapon or secrets gleaned from the files of Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor now in Moscow.
Instead, this menace may come in the form of a seemingly innocuous dome-topped antenna perched atop an electronics-packed building surrounded by a security fence somewhere in the United States.
In recent months, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon have been quietly waging a campaign to stop the State Department from allowing Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, to build about half a dozen of these structures, known as monitor stations, on United States soil, several American officials said.
They fear that these structures could help Russia spy on the United States and improve the precision of Russian weaponry, the officials said. These monitor stations, the Russians contend, would significantly improve the accuracy and reliability of Moscow’s version of the Global Positioning System, the American satellite network that steers guided missiles to their targets and thirsty smartphone users to the nearest Starbucks.
Reuters / Ilya Naymushin
Engineer Yelena Veleseichik supervises the electric testing of the GLONASS-K new generation space navigation satellite of the Reshetnev Information Satellite Systems company in the Siberian town of Zheleznogorsk The Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) is a Russian satellite navigation system similar to the GPS of the U.S.
“They don’t want to be reliant on the American system and believe that their systems, like GPS, will spawn other industries and applications,” said a former senior official in the State Department’s Office of Space and Advanced Technology. “They feel as though they are losing a technological edge to us in an important market. Look at everything GPS has done on things like your phone and the movement of planes and ships.”
The Russian effort is part of a larger global race by several countries — including China and European Union nations — to perfect their own global positioning systems and challenge the dominance of the American GPS.
For the State Department, permitting Russia to build the stations would help mend the Obama administration’s relationship with the government of President Vladimir V. Putin, now at a nadir because of Moscow’s granting asylum to Mr. Snowden and its backing of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
But the C.I.A. and other American spy agencies, as well as the Pentagon, suspect that the monitor stations would give the Russians a foothold on American territory that would sharpen the accuracy of Moscow’s satellite-steered weapons. The stations, they believe, could also give the Russians an opening to snoop on the United States within its borders.
The squabble is serious enough that administration officials have delayed a final decision until the Russians provide more information and until the American agencies sort out their differences, State Department and White House officials said.
Russia’s efforts have also stirred concerns on Capitol Hill, where members of the intelligence and armed services committees view Moscow’s global positioning network — known as Glonass, for Global Navigation Satellite System — with deep suspicion and are demanding answers from the administration.
“I would like to understand why the United States would be interested in enabling a GPS competitor, like Russian Glonass, when the world’s reliance on GPS is a clear advantage to the United States on multiple levels,” said Representative Mike D. Rogers, Republican of Alabama, the chairman of a House Armed Services subcommittee.
Mr. Rogers last week asked the Pentagon to provide an assessment of the proposal’s impact on national security. The request was made in a letter sent to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry and the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr.
The monitor stations have been a high priority of Mr. Putin for several years as a means to improve Glonass not only to benefit the Russian military and civilian sectors but also to compete globally with GPS.
Earlier this year, Russia positioned a station in Brazil, and agreements with Spain, Indonesia and Australia are expected soon, according to Russian news reports. The United States has stations around the world, but none in Russia.
Russian and American negotiators last met on April 25 to weigh “general requirements for possible Glonass monitoring stations in U.S. territory and the scope of planned future discussions,” said a State Department spokeswoman, Marie Harf, who said no final decision had been made.
Ms. Harf and other administration officials declined to provide additional information. The C.I.A. declined to comment.
The Russian government offered few details about the program. In a statement, a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington, Yevgeniy Khorishko, said that the stations were deployed “only to ensure calibration and precision of signals for the Glonass system.” Mr. Khorishko referred all questions to Roscosmos, which did not respond to a request for comment last week.
Although the Cold War is long over, the Russians do not want to rely on the American GPS infrastructure because they remain suspicious of the United States’ military capabilities, security analysts say. That is why they have insisted on pressing ahead with their own system despite the high costs.
Accepting the dominance of GPS, Russians fear, would give the United States some serious strategic advantages militarily. In Russians’ worst fears, analysts said, Americans could potentially manipulate signals and send erroneous information to Russian armed forces.
Monitor stations are essential to maintaining the accuracy of a global positioning system, according to Bradford W. Parkinson, a professor emeritus of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University, who was the original chief architect of GPS. As a satellite’s orbit slowly diverges from its earlier prediction, these small deviations are measured by the reference stations on the ground and sent to a central control station for updating, he said. That prediction is sent to the satellite every 12 hours for subsequent broadcast to users. Having monitor stations all around the earth yields improved accuracy over having them only in one hemisphere.
Washington and Moscow have been discussing for nearly a decade how and when to cooperate on civilian satellite-based navigation signals, particularly to ensure that the systems do not interfere with each other. Indeed, many smartphones and other consumer navigation systems sold in the United States today use data from both countries’ satellites.
In May 2012, Moscow requested that the United States allow the ground-monitoring stations on American soil. American technical and diplomatic officials have met several times to discuss the issue and have asked Russian officials for more information, said Ms. Harf, the State Department spokeswoman.
In the meantime, C.I.A. analysts reviewed the proposal and concluded in a classified report this fall that allowing the Russian monitor stations here would raise counterintelligence and other security issues.
The State Department does not think that is a strong argument, said an administration official. “It doesn’t see them as a threat.”
David M. Herszenhorn and Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting from Moscow. Kitty Bennett contributed research.
This article, “A Russian GPS Using U.S. Soil Stirs Spy Fears,” first appeared in The New York Times
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