Galileo was conceived as an alternative to the US’s ubiquitous GPS (global positional system).   It offered the European Union both a slice of a lucrative commercial market and a sense of sovereignty. It had not gone unnoticed that during the first Gulf War in 1991 the US Department of Defence (DoD) degraded GPS signals received by commercial GPS equipment – Pentagon claims the right to degrade signal traffic for its own strategic benefit. GPS can be switched off over any region the US government chooses, thus leading to a paralysis of civilian and military transportation. 

In 2003, Gustav Lindstrom, a research fellow at the EU Institute for Security Studies noted that “should the GPS system become dysfunctional or turned off, it has been conservatively estimated that the cost to European economies would be between Euros 130 and Euros 500 million per day. As a low probability yet high impact event, this gives added impetus for a European system”[1].  In June 2007 Guardian journalist Wendy Grossman noted that “building Galileo would give Europe back its independence and, in addition, would mean that everyone will have access to a better system”. However she added, “Galileo’s original timetable called for its constellation of 30 satellites to be complete and operational by 2011; the first were due to launch next year. However, that schedule now looks iffy….”[2].

Who has thrown the spanner in the works?   US’s opposition to Galileo was first expressed through a wrangle over the utilisation of a high quality radio frequency range known as the L1 band (1563-1587 MHz). The World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC), the international authority with oversight in this area, had agreed to Galileo using a signal in this band, and in a meeting in Istanbul in 2000 decided that overlaps or ‘signal overlays’ would be allowed because there was just not enough bandwidth on the L1 band.  The  US DoD objected because it intended to use the L1 band for a secure military-purpose signal (designated the ‘M’ code) at some future date.  Any civilian use in the L1 spectrum meant that if the US decided to shut it down, then this would also affect its military capabilities. In April 2004, the Under Secretary of Defense stated, “without significant DoD movement on GPS, the introduction of Galileo may marginalize GPS to an expensive military use only system.” [3]. In subsequent talks the EU accepted to change the wave characteristics of its signal in the L1 band – the full implications in terms of signal accuracy are not in the public domain.  The likely outcome is that Galileo’s signal range would remain sufficiently vulnerable to degradation through techniques such as interfering with the satellite-borne atomic clocks or jamming (emitting noise at the frequencies used by Galileo). Some EU officials contended that the US intention was to undercut Galileo’s accuracy in the name of defending allied security while in fact boosting US business interests.  

While France and Italy have hitherto been enthusiastic backers, the British position has been ambivalent.  It has released £100 million up to 2006 with  a UK company,  Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd, responsible for building the test satellite successfully launched in December 2005 on board a Soyuz-Fregat rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan.  It has worked well apart from one problem: signals that were deemed secret and protected – for use by Galileo’s paying customers – were cracked by a team from Cornell University.  Loss of private sector confidence has now threatened Galileo’s projected revenue streams. 

The British reticence is due to the defense lobby – the nuclear-powered submarine fleet is being converted wholesale to use Tomahawk cruise missiles that rely on GPS. If the UK switched to Galileo and the US closed down L1 traffic, its submarines would be dead in the water.  Members of Parliament close to the defence lobby, such former Green Jackets officer Tobias Ellwood (Conservative, Bournemouth East) , have opposed Galileo stating, “the biggest question that the House must answer is why on Earth we are devoting so much money to the project when there already exists a very decent system run by the Americans”[4].

A satellite-based navigational system is a classic example of dual-use technology.  The EU, adamant on denying countries like Iran and Pakistan dual use technology like nuclear power, is ironically at the receiving end and seeing its own flagship project threatened. Until it has this strategic independence, the EU will never have much choice in answering the question, ‘are you with us?’


[1] The Galileo satellite system and its security implications, by Gustav Lindstrom with Giovanni Gasparini, Occasional Papers, April 2003, EU Institute for Security Studies

[2] ‘Will Galileo ever achieve orbit?’, Wendy Grossman, The Guardian, 21st June 2007

[3] Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on GPS

[4]’UK presses private Galileo role’, 3rd July 2007