China and Russia push GPS rivals into a Space-Based Arms Race is underway in Antarctica

Military rivals are building satellite receiving stations in the Antarctic.

A new space-based arms race is underway in Antarctica as the remote continent usually associated with peace, science and a pristine environment become ground zero in the push to develop a ­military edge via global position systems.

While Antarctica’s strategic importance long has been understood as a territory with unresolved sovereignty and rich resources, the installation of satellite earth stations by the US and now Russia and China is a game changer in terms of the military importance of the continent.

The stations highlight other questionable civil-military activities in Antarctica but governments around the world are waking up only now to the need to address the arms race.

GPS has been a critical enabler for the military operations of the US and its strategic partners for two decades. It provides missile targeting and timing, as well as access to fleet-based broadband for unclassified and classified systems, and for environmental situational awareness.

Antarctic-based ground stations are essential to the accuracy of GPS, which is why the US ground stations have been in place since 1995. The US invented GPS for military operations and the world now depends on it.

But by 2020, the Pentagon’s technological advantage may be lost as Russia and China expand their satellite navigation systems Glonass and Beidou.

Antarctic GPS ground stations are hosted by a consortium of nations and all are allies or NATO partners of the US.

 

 
Beijing and Moscow are now following suit. China installed Beidou ground satellite receiving and processing stations at its coastal Changcheng and Zhongshan bases in 2010, at Kunlun base in early 2013. All are in the Australian Antarctic Territory.

They completed further upgrades to the Zhongshan facility in early 2015, when the system became fully operational.

China’s new base under construction in the Ross Sea area of Antarctica also will have a Beidou ground station.

Beijing has hundreds of Beidou ground stations within China, as well as in Brunei, Laos, Pakistan, and Thailand. It plans to set up dozens more in the territory of China’s 60-plus Belt and Road Initiative partners. By 2020, China’s Beidou system will have an accuracy on a par with, or possibly even superior to, GPS.

In January 2014, the Beidou system was put to the test when Chinese icebreaker Xue Long was trapped while attempting to rescue Russian research vessel Akademik Shokalskiy. A polar-orbiting Chinese military satellite, part of the Beidou system, was used to identify ice conditions to guide Xue Long’s passage through the ice floes and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army helped co-ordinate Xue Long’s exit from this ice trap. The same military polar satellite was used to search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which vanished in March 2014.

Russia has built three Glonass ground stations in Antarctica since 2010 and plans to install up to seven by 2020.

A helicopter from the nearby Chinese icebreaker Xue Long picking up the first batch of passengers from the stranded Russian ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy.

Russia will install one of the ground stations in the formerly mothballed Russkaya Station, in the strategic Ross Sea area where the US, New Zealand, South Korea, and China all have Antarctic research stations — and GPS ground stations. Russia’s other Glonass stations are in Russia, Brazil, and Tajikistan, with another planned in Nicaragua.

In 2020 Glonass also will be fully operational and on a par with GPS for accuracy. Meanwhile, the US is racing to get its new Space Force operational by 2020 to modernize GPS, but experts call it a “long shot”.

In a time of conflict, if the US denied others access to GPS, China and Russia could employ Beidou and Glonass to guide strike weapons and other military ­operations.

As the world relies on GPS for banking, weather forecasting and civilian navigation, a denial of service would have national security implications for China and Russia.

The competing systems increase the risk of counter space attacks against rival satellites.

The use by the US, Russia, and China of their Antarctic ground stations to control offensive weapons systems and relay signals intelligence — all while conducting legitimate scientific activity — has the potential to shift the strategic balance that has maintained peace in the Asia-Pacific for nearly 70 years.

Antarctica is governed by the Antarctic Treaty (1959), a Cold War agreement that was designed to manage rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union and tensions over territorial claims among the seven Antarctic claimant nations.

From the point of view of the US’s regional security architecture, the treaty completes the southern-most reach of the US ­Pacific Command.

The Antarctic Treaty did not resolve the issue of sovereignty in Antarctica. Australia, Argentina, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and Britain all claim territory in Antarctica, while Russia, the US and now China reserve the right to make claims there.

The treaty was set up so that Antarctica would be a “natural reserve, dedicated to peace and science” (article 2). But modern military technological capabilities undermine the treaty’s Cold War era arrangements.

Article I (2) of the treaty restricts military activities in Antarctica and the surrounding seas to “peaceful purposes” only, a term open to interpretation.

Article I (1) says states may not engage in any measure of a military nature, such as the establishment of military bases and fortifications, the carrying out of military maneuvers or the testing of any type of weapon.

The treaty and subsequent agreements are silent on the issue of how to deal with the military, non-peaceful aspects of military-related technology such as GPS.

Argentina, Brazil, Chile, China, New Zealand, Russia, and the US use their militaries in Antarctica for logistics and scientific support.

For Antarctic claimant states, the use of militaries in this way is a subtle and politically acceptable means to signify territorial rights.

Using military forces in Antarctica also enables militaries to practice survival in extreme environments. Many states also ­engage in military-related scientific research, such as the study of geomagnetic, auroras and the ionosphere.

Article VII (5) (c) of the treaty requires countries to report details of any military personnel or equipment to be introduced into Antarctica and most states do so.

One state, China, frequently has failed to report the extent of its military activities in Antarctica. China is steadily expanding the level of involvement of its military in the Antarctic program. This will greatly enhance China’s Antarctic operating capacity and enable PLA personnel to gain experience operating in extreme environments, both of which will be useful for China’s long-term strategic interests.

A helicopter from the nearby Chinese icebreaker Xue Long picking up the first batch of passengers from the stranded Russian ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy.
A helicopter from the nearby Chinese icebreaker Xue Long picking up the first batch of passengers from the stranded Russian ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy.
The Chinese navy is rapidly expanding its capabilities and reach and China’s significant global shipping interests are the official justification for this. China is looking for ways to reduce its dependence on maritime choke points such as the Malacca Strait.

The Southern Ocean has three potential alternative shipping routes that link China with the Indian and Atlantic Ocean: via South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope; via Chile’s Cape Horn; and via Australia’s South East Cape in Tasmania. Although the areas are marked by extreme weather conditions, all three are free of conflict. Since 2014, China’s polar icebreaker has sailed three voyages circumnavigating Antarctica and accessing these routes. In a time of war, China’s polar scientific vessels and bases would fall under PLA navy command.

The Antarctic Treaty system does not cope well with controversy or conflict, and in fact, is designed to avoid it. Antarctic Treaty consultative meetings are usually pro forma affairs attended by low-level officials. The treaty system consists of those points where consultative partners could find agreement, resulting in governance gaps in some aspects.

The development of Glonass and Beidou has fundamentally changed Antarctica’s strategic significance for Russia, China, and their rivals.

In June the New Zealand government’s Strategic Defence Policy Statement raised the issue, noting: “Difficulty in distinguishing between allowed and prohibited activities under the Antarctic Treaty system could be exploited by states seeking to carry out a range of military and other security-related activities.”

This mild statement was the first time any of the Antarctic Treaty consultative partners have called out military activities in Antarctica that appear to breach the terms of the Antarctic Treaty.

China and Russia’s expanding Antarctic dual-use satellite receiving stations enhance their military capacities and directly affect the US and its partners and allies’ ­security.

The Antarctic Treaty consultative states face a conundrum on how to deal with this emerging space race in Antarctica and the growing number of military-related activities there.

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