Russia plans rapid boost to GLONASS sat force

By MARTIN SIEFF   |   Sept. 8, 2008 at 11:00 AM
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WASHINGTON, Sept. 8 (UPI) -- Russia plans to nearly double its number of orbiting GLONASS communications satellites over the next three years.

The ambitious program clearly has the long-term strategic goal of making all Russian military and civilian-economic communications and navigation independent of the U.S. Global Positioning System as quickly as possible.

Anatoly Perminov, head of the Russian Federal Space Agency, commonly known as Roskosmos, significantly made the pledge to the Russian military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda ("Red Star") in an interview published Friday and reported by RIA Novosti.

Perminov got the job to run Roskosmos because his predecessor was obsessed with prestigious, immensely costly long-term programs like sending manned and unmanned missions to the moon and Mars and reviving ambitious super-large booster rockets, while letting meat-and-potatoes low-Earth orbit but strategically and economically vital programs like GLONASS -- the Russian Global Navigation Satellite System -- fall disastrously behind schedule. Like the GPS, GLONASS is intended to let its operators confirm their positions in real time.

Perminov made clear to Red Star that getting GLONASS up to speed was still his priority. He said the number of GLONASS satellites in orbit would rise from 16 at present to as many as 30 by 2011.

"We will increase the number of navigation satellites to the required 30 by 2011. In all, we plan to launch six satellites by the end of 2008 and six more next year. Therefore, the satellite navigation system will become truly global," RIA Novosti cited Perminov as telling the paper.

RIA Novosti cited the Central Research Institute for Machine Building in Moscow as saying that GLONASS now has 13 satellites functioning in orbit with another three in space, of which two are undergoing routine checkups and another is being taken offline, apparently permanently.

Perminov significantly emphasized that GLONASS satellites were put into orbits designed to give them superior capabilities to monitor the arctic regions in the search for new oil and natural gas deposits. "This is one of the most important preconditions for the successful development of natural deposits and for oil and gas production on the shelf," he said.

Perminov's timetable, if fulfilled, would mean the GLONASS program would be almost 75 percent complete within three and a half years. RIA Novosti noted that earlier official statements had said the program's ultimate goal was to launch into orbit 42 satellites, of which 18 would serve the Russian Federation and 24 would provide a global service to rival the U.S. GPS.

Expenditures on GLONASS remain relatively modest by U.S. standards. The official budget for the program last year was $418.25 million. However, this was still more than double the allocation for the previous year, 2006, which was $200 million. The increased resources reflect Russia's rapidly multiplying wealth as the world's largest combined exporter of oil and natural gas at a time of soaring global energy prices.

After many delays and a contract renegotiation, Russia Friday promised it would finally deliver the refitted aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov to India in 2011.

"We are planning to deliver the aircraft carrier to India after 2011, but an addendum to the original contract must be signed," Mikhail Zavaliy, a Rosoboronexport official, said Friday at an air show news conference in the Krasnodar region covered by RIA Novosti.

RIA Novosti noted that under a $750 million contract sealed in 2004 with the Indian navy, the Gorshkov should have been handed over this year. Instead, not only is the project three years behind, but Russia is trying to get India to pay an extra $1.2 billion for the work. The Indians were furious and flatly refused. After a long and acrimonious negotiation, the Russians lowered their demands by one-third and the Indians agreed to pay an extra $800 million and wait another three years to get the giant warship, which has not put to sea from Russia's Sevmash shipyard in Russia's Far North for at least 12 years.

The deal requires Sevmash to modernize the Gorshkov, which the Indians have renamed Vikramaditya, and to install MiG-29K Fulcrum combat aircraft and Ka-27 Helix-A and Ka-31 Helix-B anti-submarine helicopters on it, RIA Novosti said.

The Vikramaditya is scheduled to succeed India's antique carrier INS Viraat, originally the British light aircraft carrier HMS Hermes.

Sevmash shipyard stated June 3 that the Gorshkov would not take to the sea for at least another three years. It is scheduled to carry out operating trials in the Barents Sea in 2011 and then carry out more trials the following years.

Even if the current revised timetable is fully met, Gorshkov, or Vikramaditya, will not be delivered to the Indian navy until the end of 2012.

Russia continues to make good on its pledge to maintain a greatly increased military presence over the Arctic Ocean. On Sept. 2-3 Tupolev Tu-142MK aircraft operating from Russia's Northern Fleet carried out reconnaissance missions over the Barents and Laptev seas, RIA Novosti reported Friday.

RIA Novosti described the Tu-142 as a maritime reconnaissance/strike version of its venerable but highly reliable old Tupolev Tu-95 -- NATO designation Bear -- which is a turboprop-powered, slower but very resilient Russian variation on the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress strategic bomber. The Tu-142's primary role is for antisubmarine warfare, the report said.

"The tests of new on-board electronic equipment and weapons-control systems showed their high effectiveness," the Northern Fleet press service stated, according to the RIA Novosti report.

As we have previously monitored in these columns, then-Russian President and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin a couple of years ago ordered a greatly expanded Russian strategic presence in the arctic. The dramatic thawing of the arctic ice cap due to global warming has exposed potentially enormous reserves of oil, natural gas and precious minerals and metals for mining on the arctic continental shelf.

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