May 28, 2015: Strategy Page
A recent cell phone photo from inside a Russian Su-24 fighter cockpit was meant to show the fighter refueling with a Russian Il-76 aerial tanker. But it also showed an American commercial (Garmin) handheld GPS device sitting in handmade cradle placed in front of the pilot. Such improvised GPS receivers were common in Western warplanes in the late 1990s, before they all got GPS built into their navigation systems. Russia has not been able to upgrade the navigation systems on all their older aircraft and improvisations like this are allowed, but not officially publicized.
The Russian Air Force is adapting as best it can to two decades of sharply reduced budgets. That means the elderly Su-24 (first introduced in the mid-1970s) has had to wait longer than expected for a replacement. So far Russia has only been able to buy 60 of the new Su-34 light bombers to replace the Su-24. The Su-34 had its first flight in 1990 and finally entered service in early 2014. While most nations using Su-24s have retired them by now mainly because it was so expensive to operate and maintain them. With all the budget shortages the Russians improvised, because even the refurbished Su-24s usually lacked built in satellite navigation devices. That’s because Russia wanted its air force to have its forces use a Russian built satellite navigation system. This is called GLONASS and without much publicity was Russia was quick to copy the American GPS system even before the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
GLONASS was at full strength (24 satellites) in 1995. But the end of the Cold War meant the end of the regular financing for GLONASS. Maintaining the system required launching replacement satellites every 5-7 years. With no money that was not possible and by the end of 2002 only seven GLONASS birds were still operational. However, the Russian economy recovered at about the same time. This made possible rebuilding the GLONASS network. By the end of 2007 there were 18 GLONASS satellites active. Russia had 24 GLONASS satellites in orbit by 2011, and the system was fully operational in 2012. It is widely used in Russia and most smart phones adapted for the Russian market have GLONASS.
The money for GLONASS is coming from a Russian government that does not want to be dependent on the American controlled GPS system. But the money is only there because of high oil prices. Most GLONASS receivers in use are actually combined GPS/GLONASS receivers. Russia has put billions of dollars into GLONASS since 2012 to keep the system fully operational. The problem now is money, because of the lower oil prices and growing economic sanctions there may not be enough money to maintain the satellite network. GLONASS will be probably be declared an essential system and the money found. But something will have to be sacrificed and new aircraft for the Russian Air Force is more vulnerable to cuts than GLONASS.