Image: Chinese Academy of Sciences

What’s New: We did a short post about this last week. The below article discusses more of the tech and strategic aspects of the project.

Why It’s Important:

  • Time is fundamental to virtually all tech.
  • China is far ahead of the U.S. and most everyone else.

What Else to Know: The article’s author is RNTF President Dana A. Goward.



China finishing “High-precision Ground-based Timing System” – a worry for the United States

Est. reading time: 5 minutes

September 5, 2023  – By 

Two recent announcements showed China’s progress establishing its national “High-Precision Ground-based Timing System.” Some verbiage in the most recent announcement could indicate that the system is nearing completion.

The timing system is designed to support a vast array of scientific and technological applications as well as provide services when space-based signals are not available.

According to some Western observers, it is another example of China’s increasing lead over the United States in positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) technology.

Its BeiDou satellite PNT system is newer and has been acknowledged superior in many ways to the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS). This has allowed China to gain influence in some parts of the world at the expense of the United States.

Completion of the terrestrial system could have even more troubling implications for the United States.

Recent Announcements

On May 21 this year, a government affairs article in Shaanxi’s “The Paper” announced accelerated construction in Xi’an of a science center. Its centerpiece will be the country’s High-precision Ground-based Timing System. It is not entirely clear from the article whether this site will be the engineering and administrative headquarters for the system, or one of several “timing stations.”

The article also says the national system will be the largest in the world — with more than 20,000 kilometers of optical fiber and 295 time and frequency transmission sites — and will integrate space- and ground-based signals.

The network, according to the article, will supplement and improve the new eLoran (sometimes mistranslated by software as “Roland”) system in the western portion of the country. It will also support legacy eLoran “long-wave” signals in the east ensuring that the entire nation is well served.

Graphic from 2014 Chinese Academy of Sciences paper on Laron showing projected coverage in the western part of the country. Subsequent papers and announcements have indicated that western part of the network is complete or soon will be. (Image: Chinese Academy of Sciences)

Graphic from 2014 Chinese Academy of Sciences paper on Laron showing projected coverage in the western part of the country. Subsequent papers and announcements have indicated that western part of the network is complete or soon will be. (Image: Chinese Academy of Sciences)

Accuracy for the system’s fiber-optic transmissions is claimed to be less than 100 pico-seconds, with differential eLoran at less than 100 nanoseconds.

Experts in the West have confirmed that both these goals are achievable. Europe’s CERN laboratory has demonstrated picosecond level via fiber, and UK trials have shown the accuracy of differential eLoran to be within 50 nanoseconds.

Construction recently announced in Xi'an and Nagqu as part of China's High-precision Ground-based Timing System.

Construction recently announced in Xi’an and Nagqu as part of China’s High-precision Ground-based Timing System.

A much shorter press release was issued on June 8, announcing groundbreaking for a “timing station” in Nagqu on the Tibetan plateau in China’s west. The announcement said that, once the station was complete, China will “…realize national soil coverage of long-wave [eLoran] timing signals…”

Expansion of its eLoran and fiber infrastructure to serve the entire nation gives China what some have called the “PNT resilience triad” — signals from space, from terrestrial broadcast, and over fiber. The three sources of delivery are sufficiently different that an accidental or malicious disruption of one is highly unlikely to impact the other ones. Users accessing all three should experience minimal to no impact.

Both the May and June announcements said that finishing the timing project will benefit China’s national economy and national security.

Timing is essential tech infrastructure. More precise and robust timing enables improvements to current applications and the creation of new ones. For example, better timing can enable greater spectrum efficiency with more throughput on existing frequency bands. Highly precise fiber-based timing could also support using 5G telecommunications networks for hyper-precise positioning in autonomy corridors serving self-driving vehicles, UAVs, and other systems.

China’s ground-based timing system is part of a larger plan by its National Timing Service Center for a system of systems approach to PNT. Described as a “comprehensive approach” at the Stanford PNT Symposium in 2019, the architecture has satellite-based navigation at its heart and includes a wide variety of other capabilities.

Graphic showing China's plan for multiple, mutually supporting, diverse methods of positioning, navigation, and timing service and data. (Presentation by China's National Time Service Center at 2019 Standford PNT Symposium)

Graphic showing China’s plan for multiple, mutually supporting, diverse methods of positioning, navigation, and timing service and data. (Presentation by China’s National Time Service Center at 2019 Stanford PNT Symposium)

Some observers trace China’s national PNT efforts to an incident in 1996 during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis. Chinese forces fired three missiles toward a point in the sea offshore of Tiawan’s Kee Lung naval base. Two of the missiles were lost. According to the People’s Liberation Army this was because the United States denied or altered GPS signals that the missiles were using for guidance.

Known by China’s military as “The Unforgettable Humiliation” the incident sparked decades of effort to ensure China would never again be dependent upon another nation or space for PNT. The BeiDou global navigation satellite system and the High-precision Gound-based Timing System are the two most noteworthy accomplishments in this regard.

Implications for the United States

China’s ever-increasing lead in essential PNT technology and infrastructure is of great concern to many in the United States.

China’s global navigation satellite system, Bei Dou, is newer and, according to a presidential advisory board, substantially superior to GPS in many ways. Using it as an instrument of “soft power,” China is offering other nations BeiDou signals, along with discounted user and support equipment, as part of its Belt and Road, and Digital Silk Road initiatives. Where successful, these efforts erode both GPS usage and U.S. influence.

Of greater concern to many are the “hard power” implications of China’s PNT dominance.

While China has and continues to develop multiple and resilient sources of PNT, in the United States “GPS is still a single point of failure,” according to a member of the National Security Council.

As a result, if China were to interfere with GPS in some way, a U.S. response in-kind against BeiDou would have much less impact. This strategic asymmetry has been described by former CIA senior analyst George Beebe as “an open invitation” for mischief or attack. One that could easily lead to an escalating series of responses ending in an armed conflict no one wants.

At a more tactical level, China’s eLoran system extends 1,000 miles offshore covering Taiwan, the Strait, and all approaches. In a conflict to capture the island and make it subject to the Communist regime, China could block all signals from space while preserving its forces’ ability to maneuver and communicate. Already at a disadvantage having to deploy far from their support bases, this would further hamper U.S., Japanese, and other forces hoping to help Taiwan maintain its independence.

The U.S. Department of Defense boasts it can operate well in GPS-denied environments and says it is also working on alternative means of navigation for deployed forces.

This begs the strategic question, though, of whether the United States would be willing to come to the aid of Taiwan or another ally if the homeland were threatened with a prolonged and crippling disruption of GPS services.

Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin destroyed a defunct satellite and boasted it would shoot down all 32 GPS satellites and “blind NATO” if the alliance intervened. Many observers have wondered whether that has played into subsequent U.S. and NATO policy toward the conflict.

Unfortunately, little has been done to eliminate the possibility of a belligerent adversary holding the U.S. homeland hostage through GPS.

For two decades narrow government and industry interests in GPS production have successfully opposed any effort they see as possibly “competing” for space in limited budgets. Appeals that such projects would increase system security by “taking the bullseye off” GPS satellites and signals have been to no avail.

However, this may be changing. Several years ago the National Guard began development of a national timing architecture and network, called NITRO. The project supports the Guard’s own requirements to be able to operate without GPS and to aid state first responders. It is already in use in 7 states.

The future of NITRO is unclear, though, as the Department of Defense sees it as a civil defense rather than a national defense project and is no longer supporting it in the budget. Yet, the National Guard’s funding flows through defense appropriations.

As of this writing, the National Guard and NITRO remain stuck in a bureaucratic and budgetary no-man’s land with no clear path forward.