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Interoperable World: the ICG Should Avoid a Cold War mentality

Glen Gibbons
Once again the world is becoming a cauldron of grievances involving its most powerful nations, including the four primary members of the ICG Providers Forum.

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Most of us probably remember the Cold War, because everyone over the age of 30 spent most of their lives living through it.

The Cold War was the era of unremitting, nuclear-tinged confrontation between the former Soviet Union and its allies on one side and the United States, western Europe, and associated nations on the other. It lasted from shortly after the end of World War II until about 1991.

The Cold War is what U.S. citizens widely believe that our side won and the other guys lost.

Only thing is, it wasn’t really a war — though it could certainly have led to one, and many battles, armed conflicts, and proxy wars were fought in its name. But the Cold War produced no clash of Soviet and Western armies. No occupations of one another’s lands. No unilateral disarming of the defeated.

Instead, the term “Cold War” was a metaphor, an explanatory shortcut, an abbreviation for complex relationships and complicated feelings — harsh, vindictive, and belligerent as they were. But sometimes shorthand language can short-circuit thinking. And to confuse metaphor with reality can lead to dangerous misconceptions, policies, and actions.

Indeed, most of the fundamental conditions, relationships, forces, and attitudes that were in place before the end of the Cold War remain intact or have only slowly changed since then. And the assumption that the processes of transformation and de-escalation are irreversible is, as recent events have shown, wishful thinking at best.

In December, the United States will host the third meeting of the International Committee on GNSS (ICG), and all participants would do well to avoid rekindling a Cold War mentality in its staging and conduct.

Unfortunately, such reflexive behavior occurs all too often. For example, in response to the armed conflict in Georgia, some nations are proposing to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia — coincidentally, the site of the fourth ICG meeting scheduled in autumn 2009. Similar calls went out for this year’s Olympics in Beijing because of various Chinese policies. [[Editor's Note: the ICG-4 meeting venue has been changed to St. Petersburg, Russia.]]

But the stakes are too high, the potential benefits too great, to create obstacles for continued long-term progress in GNSS cooperation as a way of expressing displeasure for unrelated policies and actions of the moment.

After all, it wasn’t easy or simple to get this far. The idea for an ICG emerged in 2001 when the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space established the Action Team on Global Navigation Satellite Systems. Carefully nurtured by the UN Office on Outer Space Affairs, the ICG finally launched in December 2005 as an informal, voluntary organization promoting cooperation in GNSS matters.

Perhaps most notably for these troubled times, the ICG Providers Forum brings together the operators of the world’s four GNSS systems (United States, Russia, European Union, and China). Last September in Bangalore, India, this group produced a remarkably ambitious, detailed, and comprehensive set of principles and goals to ensure that GNSS systems work harmoniously and synergistically.

Once again, however, the world is becoming a cauldron of grievances involving its most powerful nations, including the four primary members of the ICG Providers Forum.

As the reciprocal U.S. and Soviet boycotts of the 1980–84 Olympics demonstrated, although an event can no longer compel — as could the Games in ancient Greece — the cessation of hostilities among participants, such grievances can quickly put an end to even the most positive of mutual human endeavors.

The December gathering in Pasadena is a much more modest affair than the Olympics. But the opportunity to reaffirm goodwill and continue work on practical realization of the Providers Forum statement for the benefit of GNSS users everywhere is too good to let slip away.

One could even argue that the goals of compatibility and inter-operability set forth by the ICG should be expanded from technical issues to relationships among nations themselves. In fact, progress on GNSS interoperability probably depends upon our political leaders’ abilities to create a more interoperable world.

Copyright © 2017 Gibbons Media & Research LLC, all rights reserved.

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