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Great leap forward for China's military? China gets GPS.

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Photo Illustration/Lockheed Martin/AP

(Read caption) This artist drawing of a Block III GPS satellite orbiting the Earth. China is now the third country to develop its own GPS satalite system, called the 'Big Dipper.'

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Something important was missing from all the fanfare here surrounding Tuesday’s announcement that China had launched a homegrown satellite navigation system to rival the US Global Positioning System (GPS): any mention of what it is really for.

“The driver for this program is that it is a strategic imperative” for China’s military modernization, says Eric Hagt, an expert on China’s space activities at the Center for Defense Information in Washington.

You would not have learned that from the head of the China Satellite Navigation Office, Ran Chengqi, who announced that the Beidou system, which means “Big Dipper” in Chinese, had gone live.

He talked only of civilian uses, such as disaster relief management, or tracking official vehicles.

The Beidou system, however, is clearly designed to do more than keep an eye on the government carpool, foreign analysts say. A sophisticated positional navigation system is essential to pinpoint enemy ships and to guide missiles with precision, Mr. Hagt points out. The newly launched system, he adds, “is a guarantee for the Chinese that they would have an independent system in place” in case of conflict.

Until now, the Chinese military has relied on GPS. But that is controlled by the US government, which could block Beijing’s access if it wanted to, effectively blinding China’s Army, Navy, and Air Force.

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