President Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday fired two top space officials and reprimanded the space agency chief after a launch failure caused Russia to delay the deployment of its own navigation system.
This month’s failed launch of three Glonass-M orbiters marked a humiliating setback to the country’s efforts to introduce a global rival to the US Global Positioning System (GPS).
A presidential statement said Energia Vice President Vyacheslav Filin and Roskosmos deputy head Viktor Remishevsky had been fired for “the mistakes made in the fuel calculations”.
The Russian Proton-M rocket proved too heavy to reach its initial orbit during the December 5 launch and was forced to dump the three high-tech Glonass-M satellites near the Hawaii Islands.
The brief statement said Medvedev had also reprimanded Roskosmos chief Anatoly Perminov and ordered the agency to be more careful in its future work.
“On the Russian president’s instructions, Roskosmos will undertake additional measures to strengthen its performance discipline,” the Kremlin statement said.
The satellites would have completed a system whose research had been started by the Soviet Union in 1976 before being interrupted and then picked up again by the country’s president-turned premier Vladimir Putin.
Russia’s de-facto number one has vowed to place Glonass readers on every car made in Russia by 2012 and hailed the system as an example of how the country can claw back its Soviet-era technological might.
But analysts said that Glonass would more importantly enable Russia to finally target its missiles and other weapons from space — something that other armies using the GPS system have been doing for years.
“This has turned into a political issue because — on top of everything else — it also came in the middle of the START (nuclear disarmament) negotiations,” said independent military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer.
“Russia had been trying to show the Americans that it has this incredible system that proves that it must be treated as an equal — and then all of a sudden this happens,” said Felgenhauer.
“Obviously someone had to be sacked after that.”
Russia and the United States have been engaged in tortuous negotiations over a new disarmament treaty that was ratified after much deliberation by the US Senate on December 22.
The United States was able to keep the treaty free of language that prevented its deployment of a new missile shield in Europe — a system opposed by Russia throughout the talks.
But those negotiations were over and analysts said that Russia was now left dealing with a series of systemic failures that underscored how serious its lag behind the United States really was.
Analysts said Moscow refuses to allow the GPS systems into its space and weapons programmes because this would potentially enable Washington to switch off the satellites used by Russia in times of conflict or war.
But Russia has not only failed to get the necessary number of satellites in orbit but also been unable to mass produce the land-based readers that receive the signals from space.
“The irony is that we have been told a million times that we cannot rely on the GPS because the Americans could switch it off at any moment,” said military commentator Alexander Golts.
“But at the same time, our inability to produce these readers means that we will either have to produce them in Taiwan or China or simply go ahead and purchase them there,” said Golts.
“And where is the safety in that?”