In the view of US spy services, the next potential threat from Russia may not come from a nefarious cyberweapon or secrets gleaned from the files of Edward Snowden, the former US 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 US.
In recent months, the CIA and the Pentagon have been quietly waging a campaign to stop the US Department of State from allowing Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, to build about half a dozen of these structures, known as monitor stations, on US soil, several US officials said.
They fear that these structures could help Russia spy on the US 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 GPS, the US satellite network that steers guided missiles to their targets and thirsty smartphone users to the nearest Starbucks.
“They don’t want to be reliant on the American system and believe that their systems, like GPS, will spawn other industries and applications,” a former senior official in the State Department’s Office of Space and Advanced Technology said. “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 EU nations — to perfect their own GPSs and challenge the dominance of the US’ GPS.
For the State Department, permitting Russia to build the stations would help mend US President Barack Obama’s administration’s relationship with the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin, now at a nadir because of Moscow’s granting asylum to Snowden and its backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
However, the CIA and other US spy agencies, as well as the Pentagon, suspect that the monitor stations would give the Russians a foothold on US 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 US 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 US 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 Obama 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 US Representative Mike Rogers, a Republican and the chairman of a US House of Representatives Armed Services subcommittee.
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 US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper Jr.
The monitor stations have been a high priority of 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.
This year, Russia positioned a station in Brazil, and agreements with Spain, Indonesia and Australia are expected soon, according to Russian news reports. The US has stations around the world, but none in Russia.
Russian and US negotiators last met on April 25 to weigh “general requirements for possible GLONASS monitoring stations in US territory and the scope of planned future discussions,” said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, who said no final decision had been made.
Harf and other administration officials declined to provide additional information. The CIA 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.”
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 US GPS infrastructure because they remain suspicious of the US’ 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 US 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 GPS, said Bradford 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 US today use data from both countries’ satellites.
In May last year, Moscow requested that the US allow the ground-monitoring stations on US soil. US technical and diplomatic officials have met several times to discuss the issue and have asked Russian officials for more information, Harf said.
In the meantime, CIA 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 US State Department does not think that is a strong argument, an administration official said.
“It doesn’t see them as a threat,” the official said.
Additional reporting by David Herszenhorn and Andrew Kramer.