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Analysis

Sun goes ballistic over satellites

by Paul Taylor | 28.03.2018

A furore over Britain’s possible exclusion from Galileo post Brexit highlights just how much business stands to lose. The Sun reports Britain is threatening to retaliate by crippling the EU’s satellite navigation system by shutting access to ground radars in the Falklands, Ascension Island and Diego Garcia.

The long-running Galileo saga could be a metaphor for the UK’s tortured relationship with Europe. It is half Shakespearean tragedy, half Whitehall farce. It is a test case for the Brexiters’ attempt to have their cake and eat it – an unscientific theory akin to the notion that the sun revolves around the earth, which the original Galileo debunked.

The plot so far.

Act I – Britain sniffy about Europe’s answer to GPS

EU countries, frustrated by their dependence on the US Global Positioning System (GPS) and being shut out of the military applications and technologies, agree in 2003 to build their own satellite navigation system. Independence in space is seen as vital to Europe’s economic future. While civilian-run and intended primarily for commercial purposes, Galileo also has military uses.

The UK cabinet is initially divided with the Treasury and the Ministry of Defence opposed, and the Foreign Office and Department of Trade and Industry in favour. Tony Blair backs the project but insists it be run as a public-private partnership. British Eurosceptics, notably the Thatcherite Bruges Group, brand it a “white elephant” and say Europe should stick with the American GPS. The US Defence Department lobbies aggressively against Galileo and forces the EU to change the frequencies to avoid “overlay” with US military frequencies. Galileo is originally projected to cost €3.4 billion euros and go live in 2008.

Act II – UK warms to Galileo as costs escalate

Costs escalate, the public-private partnership collapses and the EU decides in 2007 to fund the entire project with public money, mostly by redirecting unspent EU agriculture and administration funds. The UK drops its traditional insistence that any unspent EU funds be returned to national treasuries because Britain has a growing space industry which is bidding for a sizeable share of the work. Surrey Satellite Technology, QinetiQ, Airbus Defence and Space UK all get part of the action.

Act III – We have lift off

After more cost overruns and delays, Galileo finally goes live in 2016 with a price-tag of €10 billion. UK companies have had 15% of the contracts, including building the satellite navigation payloads, while Britain has contributed 12% of the cost. After UK votes to leave the EU, Brussels decides to move a satellite safety backup ground station from Britain to Spain.

Act IV – Britain goes ballistic

The European Commission writes to the UK notifying it that, once it becomes a third country, it will not have access to Galileo’s encrypted public regulated service, the bit with military applications, to avoid security being “irreversibly compromised”. EU officials also say only companies from EU member states will be allowed to bid for future Galileo contracts. The UK goes ballistic. Downing Street vows that Theresa May will fight for the UK to remain a full partner.

Finale – UK a satellite?

We don’t yet know how this ends. Clearly, the UK’s best hope of keeping a role in Galileo and preserving access to its military applications lies in close alignment with EU single market rules and data protection standards. The more we diverge, the more we stand to lose. The Brexiters won’t make the European sun revolve around the British earth. They are making us the satellite.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon

5 Responses to “Sun goes ballistic over satellites”

  • Well,Well another “problem” that this fiasco turns up, as with air traffic control and the Irish border , didn’t any body who voted leave think about these consequences? I did!

  • “Downing Street vows that Theresa May will fight for the UK to remain a full partner.” Well, there is an easy and obvious way to achieve this and perhaps at some point, May will join with the rest of us and abandon “Brexit means Brexit”. Brexit ran out of positive news a long time ago. Even Rees-Mogg is getting (and looking) desperate. I wonder if he thinks Galileo is a project related to the original Italian gent?

  • The article says, “We don’t yet know how this ends. Clearly, the UK’s best hope of keeping a role in Galileo and preserving access to its military applications lies in close alignment with EU single market rules and data protection standards.”

    I think that even with very little information, we have a pretty clear idea how this ends.

    At first, it needs to be understood that there’s a public offering of EU’s Galileo (and USA’s GPS) that we all have access to. But inside both there is a highly privileged part. In Galileo’s case, it’s called PRS (“Public Regulated Service”) and is strictly limited to agencies of EU nation states, such as police, rescue and energy services. EEA Member Norway has many times sought access but been refused. The USA would love to have access, but has been refused.

    In fact Galileo was built for the circumstance that we ever fell out with the Americans. So there’s one problem for a start. Britain is always mouthing-off about how it’s closer to the USA than to Europe, how it has a “Special Relationship”. So already it makes sense that this would not be up for negotiation.

    So what the hell does PRS do, which is so vital? Well, we’re not told very much. Here’s some things we do know, and what they imply:
    – It’s designed to resist being blocked or spoofed. If our Sat-Navs signal were blocked or spoofed we’d be kind of lost (!) so it’s imaginable how for military and necessary public service purposes sat-nav interference could be used as a weapon of war.
    – All new cars sold in the EU from next year must have a Galileo receiver. And the example always rolled-out why this would be useful is for rescue purposes: a vehicle in distress could give a ping which would be detected by the satellite and elicit help. But (it seems to me) that this implies a degree of 2-way interaction which could be used in all sorts of ways. It’s a simple extension of that functionality to deliver a signal that triggers any vehicle or class of vehicles to trigger its/their location. That would be a nasty weapon in the wrong hands (hmm, even the right hands?).
    – It’s said that the UK Defense Secretary is contemplating the possibility of building our own similar system (that would cost many £billions) if we were denied access to Galileo/PRS, which suggests how vital the capability is seen as being.
    – The EU said that it could not contemplate the UK, as a departing Member State be allowed in continuing discussions about PRS because it would irretrievably compromise their future plans for the system. So that certainly means that whatever it can do today, it’s as nothing to the intention for what it will be able to do in the future.

    So given the bit we know about PRS, I’d be kind of surprised if the EU relented on this matter. But … time will tell.

  • Once again the Brexiteers can only come up with confrontation and aggressive retaliation in place of friendship and co-operation