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Galileo: Is the EU Being Premature?

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Default profile picture Morag Young

Washington is right to worry about China’s participation in the satellite system programme. European policy needs a wake up call.

Four years. This is the amount of time left for the European Commission and the ESA (European Space Agency) to make Galileo, the EU’s navigation and positioning satellite programme, operational. The programme received an initial total investment of 3.2 billion Euro, 1.2 billion of which was already earmarked for the development phase currently in progress.

Duel use technology

But how will Galileo work? It’s simple: thirty satellites, each one furnished with an atomic clock, will transmit radio signals at precise intervals. In consequence, thanks to the triangularisation of the signals, the user will be able to establish his or her own location in space and time.

Currently two similar systems to Galileo exist, both of military origin: the American GPS and the Russian Glonass, whose operation is limited. The US system provides for two types of signal, one open to civil use and a more precise one reserved for the armed forces. The European version, on the other hand, will offer different services, not all of them free, as well as a signal reserved for government use which will be particularly useful for use in the military domain. By its very nature, a navigation system is a classic example of duel use technology, in other words useable in the pursuit of both civil and military aims. Consider the navigation system installed in many cars today or computer synchronisation procedures used in the financial markets or aviation or, in the arms sector, individualisation of objectives, munitions control or synchronisation of operations.

And that’s not all. Galileo’s future is also rosy because market demand should be very high when you consider that this type of technology has now become essential in the defence sector.

China: the risk is a military one

But European projects are quickly running into the reality of international politics. The Galileo system, which began life as a civil initiative, was run initially without taking the implications for security into account. The United States’ reaction was not long in coming. For Washington, Galileo is not only inconvenient competition for GPS on a commercial basis, but also a potential threat to the established military order. The fact remains that for Europe it is an unprecedented opportunity for development. In every respect. It is stimulating the evolution of technological and industrial capacity in vital sectors; it has important commercial potential; and it is transforming the EU into a global player of the first order.

But there’s more. Galileo has opened up participation with third countries. It is therefore understandable that, since participation by India and especially China has been announced, the Bush administration cannot sleep easy at night.

On October 30th last year the EU signed an agreement foreseeing Chinese participation with a contribution of 200 million Euro. If on the one hand this agreement is providing precious foreign financing and has created an important technical-industrial collaboration between European and third country businesses, the Americans are pointing at legitimate worries with regard to the implications in terms of security. This is where the problem lies. How can foreign countries be prevented from gaining access to sensitive technology? How can military use of Galileo be prevented?

What to we do if there’s a crisis in Taiwan?

Europe’s authorities need to respond. The undoubted economic and political benefits of the bilateral agreement need to be weighed up against the possible risks in terms of security.

And that’s not all. The Union should also reconsider its transatlantic policy on the matter. Some of the American concerns are justified. Bilateral discussions between the EU and the USA have been held in the last few months. Their objective? To resolve questions of a technical nature surrounding the allocation of transmission frequencies, and, above all, to create a concrete ‘neighbourly’ relationship. Ideally the Galileo system and GPS should be able to contribute in areas of international crisis and war. In practice, the rules of the game need to be defined. What should be done in the face of a crisis in ‘difficult’ areas, such as Taiwan or North Korea? Only a co-ordinated policy could avoid potentially catastrophic ruptures.

The issue remains an essentially political one, which concerns the relationship of mutual faith that Europe and the United States must constantly learn to put in place through the laying out of programmes of high technical and industrial value including global positioning systems.

Of course the EU has the right to develop its own system and to reject objections that often simply mask a desire to conserve a technical, industrial, commercial and political monopoly rather than encouraging discussion. But it must recognise Galileo’s possible uses in the military domain. Especially when the partner is China.

This article is an edited and updated version of an article by the same author which appeared in issue 1/2004 of Aspenia, journal of the Aspen Institute, Italy.

Translated from Galileo: se l’UE è immatura