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  • Hindol Sengupta

Historical Reasons Why India Building its own GPS is a Breakthrough

Spurned by the US on GPS coordinates during the Kargil conflict, and with the history of a failed BrahMos missile test, India learnt that it needed its own GPS system.


An artist's rendition of a NavIC satellite.


The International Maritime Organisation has just recognized the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS), the Indian GPS (global positioning system) also known as NavIC. India has, thus, become part of a handful of countries to have its own indigenously built GPS system.


NavIC (Navigation with Indian Constellation; also ‘sailor’ in the Hindi language) will now be used as part of the World Wide Radio Navigation System (WWRNS) assisting those in need, for instance marine vessels, till up to 1,500 kilometres from India’s boundaries. Other countries that have such a system include China’s BeiDou, Russia’s GLONASS, the European Union’s Galileo, Japan’s QZSS, and the one from the United States, GPS.


It is important to note why acquiring this capability had profound strategic importance for India. It has long been a point of consternation, and conversation, among Indian strategic circles (though never officially) confirmed, that the US refused to share critical GPS coordinates with India during the Kargil conflict in 1999 which began with Pakistani troops capturing key Indian positions in the Himalayan heights of Kargil. Though India managed to eliminate the encroachment and successfully dismantle any occupation, the lack of cooperation in something as mission critical as GPS coordinates have become institutional memory.


If this had happened once, it could perhaps be seen as an outlier. But in 2009, the sudden switching off from US GPS connectivity led to India’s BrahMos missile missing its target during a test run. The American explanation for this was that the GPS system had been switched off during the inauguration of Barack Obama as president. A re-run a few days later with the American GPS coordinates switched on allowed the BrahMos missile, co-developed between India and Russia, to successfully hit its re-test target.


India is not the only country which has had an issue with American GPS. In the mid-1990s, during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, China had complained that its warning missiles directed towards Taiwan and its military bases had been misdirected, and some altogether lost, due to the suspicious malfunction of American GPS. Now some reports suggest that in many parts of the world, Chinese BeiDou works better than America’s GPS.


In India too, scientists have said that within Indian territory and outskirts, NavIC is likely to be more accurate than GPS due to more advanced technology. India recently test fired the land-attack variant of the BrahMos cruise missile. And in the future missiles such are these are unlikely to miss the target due to wrong coordinates.


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