WASHINGTON — A Russian bid to place Glonass satellite ground stations in the United States has triggered a backlash among congressional Republicans, including a proposed legislative ban on any foreign satellite navigation facilities on American soil.

Proponents of the ban say the Glonass ground stations could be used for spying and to improve the accuracy of Russian missiles. 

U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said Nov. 19 that he reviewed a classified Defense Department assessment of the Russian proposal and wants greater clarity on how the ground stations will be used.

A State Department spokesman confirmed the Russian proposal, concerns over which were first reported by the New York Times, Nov. 21, and said the department in recent months has asked Moscow for more details.

“I am deeply concerned and people within the intelligence community are deeply concerned and people within the Defense Department are deeply concerned about the Russian proposal to use U.S. soil to strengthen Russia’s GPS capabilities,” Wicker said in a floor speech. “These ground monitoring stations could be used for the purpose of gathering intelligence. Even more troubling, these stations could actually improve the accuracy of foreign missiles targeted at the United States.”

Glonass is Russia’s version of the U.S. GPS positioning, navigation and timing satellite system. Such systems typically require networks of ground stations to confirm the accuracy and assure the integrity of the satellite signals. 

Wicker’s comments came six days after Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, said in a Nov. 13 letter to senior Obama administration officials that he was “troubled by the national security implications of the request and wish(es) to better understand the status of its consideration by the United States.” The letter was sent to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

Rogers expressed concern that the Glonass stations could interfere with signals from the U.S. GPS system. However, experts have said the chance for the Glonass stations to interfere with GPS signals is practically nonexistent, and in fact there are receivers that are compatible with both systems.

“I would also like to understand why the United States would be interested in enabling a GPS competitor, like Russia’s GLONASS, when the world’s reliance on GPS is a clear advantage to the United States on multiple levels,” Rogers said. “Reported enthusiasm at the State Department with the Russian GLONASS proposal is likewise difficult to understand.”

Glonass was initially deployed in the 1980s but suffered from neglect following the end of the Cold War. Russian authorities have made replenishing and upgrading Glonass a priority in recent years.

Meanwhile, Europe and China are deploying their own global satellite navigation constellations, while countries like Japan and India are working on regional systems.

The U.S. government works with other national operators of navigation satellite systems as part of the 2010 National Space Policy. The aim is to ensure interoperability of the countries’ civil signals to benefit users worldwide, the State Department spokesman said.

Rogers said it is his understanding that the U.S. intelligence community recently completed an assessment of the Russian Glonass proposal and requested a briefing on its findings. He also asked the State Department for details of the proposal and for an assessment of its national security implications from the Defense Department.

Russia’s initial proposal to deploy Glonass ground stations in the United States was made about 18 months ago, the State Department spokesman said. Discussions with Russian officials continue but no decision has been made, the spokesman said.

Any proposal “would be carefully considered by relevant U.S. government policy and technical experts,” the spokesman said.

Like in the United States, Russia’s navigational system was originally designed for military use.

Russian officials have said they hope to expand the Glonass ground network into 30 countries, including the United States and Brazil as well as Spain, Indonesia and Australia.

The United States has 12 command and control antennas and 16 monitoring sites for the GPS system throughout the world, including facilities in the United Kingdom and South Korea. It does not have any in Russia.

Wicker offered an amendment Nov. 19 to the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act prohibiting foreign ground stations in the United States. Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) co-sponsored the amendment.

“Time and again, [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin has shown he is unwilling to cooperate with America,” Wicker said. “Let’s not forget that Russia, the same Russia that wants to put GPS stations on U.S. soil, has denied Russian orphans a chance at a better life in the United States, with a ban on U.S. adoptions.”

A new package of amendments related to the issue is expected after the Thanksgiving recess, sources said.

Follo Mike on Twitter: @Gruss_SN

Mike Gruss is a senior staff writer for SpaceNews. He joined the publication in January 2013 to cover military space. Previously, he worked as a reporter and columnist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. and The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind. He...