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Of Galileo and Potential UK Options By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.








Given the huge part that the United Kingdom has played within all aspects of European Security for decades and in how we have stood beside individual members of the European Union and collectively within NATO as allies since the Alliance was founded in 1949, it is extremely sad that those who command the present generation of the European Union in Brussels and in the European Space Agency (ESA) should have been so determined to exclude the UK from future collaboration in the Galileo Global Positioning System development.

Whilst the political reasoning behind Germany, France and others for seeking to exclude British companies from future involvement in Galileo is presumably based on the UK soon being out of the European Union, I am bound to view the ruthless attitude of EU leaders, a view that has no wish to recall history of how in two world-wars the UK gave so much to ensure freedom in Europe, is none other than a sad reflection of how we in the UK are seen by those in the EU and ESA who wish to do us down because, I assume, of the industrial advantages that they believe are now available to them due to our decision to leave the EU. Well, they made their bed and they must now lie on it. We must build something else for ourselves that is equal to or even better.

I accept that I might well be shot down in flames by some for what I have said in respect of history but there we are. Arguably, the position right now isn’t good and as the Labour defence spokesperson, Nia Griffith said last week, “Having secure access to global positioning and navigation systems is vital for our armed forces, particularly given the increasing threats to Global Positioning System (GPS) integrity from cyber attacks’ jamming and spoofing”.

The EU is also seeking to exclude our use of the system even though we are responsible for some of the most important and necessary technology within the Galileo project. As we stand now, although the UK Government has quickly responded to the challenge of ensuring that we get what we will need, we remain in unclear territory.

Developed, at an estimated cost of EUR 10 billion (so far) as being a rival to the US Global Positioning System and deemed crucial not only in respect of defence and security collaboration across and within the EU but also in respect of substantial public and private sector use, Brussels having now decided that UK companies which have brought so much expertise and technology to the project are no longer eligible to bid on future contracts or indeed, to have participation in the programme post Brexit, there is clearly no future in it for us. To that end it is hardly surprising that the UK is now looking at other options.

Having emphasised the vital importance of Galileo for our armed forces in SDSR 2015 and made clear “the intention of the UK Government to enhance resilience of military users and key domestic resilience responders using new technologies incorporating the European Galileo system” it is with regret that as far as the UK is concerned, Galileo looks like ending in tears.

Last Thursday, in answer to a specific Galileo related question by Shadow Secretary of State for Defence Nia Griffith, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Defence, Guto Bebb said:

“The Government have been clear that our preference is to contribute fully to Galileo as part of a deep security partnership with the European Union and that negotiations should be allowed to run their course. That includes UK involvement in the design and development of Galileo’s encrypted signal for use by Governments, the Public Regulated Service. 

On 13 June at the European Space Agency council, member states agreed to proceed with the procurement of the next phase of Galileo. UK companies are not eligible to bid for those contracts. By forcing through that vote while excluding UK companies from the contracts on security grounds, the European Commission has put all of this at risk. The Commission also published slides setting out the EU’s response to the UK’s technical note on Galileo published on 24 May, which explained our requirements for future participation in the programme. The EU proposal does not meet UK defence and industrial requirements, and we could not justify future participation in Galileo on that basis. 

The UK has explained that without full, fair and open industrial involvement, guaranteed access to the signal and full understanding of the system’s technical characteristics, Galileo would not offer the UK value for money or meet our defence needs, and that we would be obliged to walk away, resulting in delays and additional costs to the programme that will run into the billions. The Government will need to consider the implications of the recent ESA vote, but we are looking at other options, including a UK global navigation satellite system”.

In the same House of Commons defence questions session, former Minister for Defence Procurement and Member for Ludlow, Philip Dunne recalled “that the UK has made a generous and sincere offer to work with the EU for our mutual security in future, including with our world leading space sector. Reaction by the European Space Agency (ESA) officials in regard of Galileo has been protectionist and unhelpful”.

Given the prevailing attitude in Brussels in respect of ensuring that UK based companies have no further involvement post Brexit I take the view that the UK should now consider walking completely away from Galileo and waste no time developing its own system. We have the companies and we have the necessary skills to do this and I rather doubt that there is any lack of will on the part of the private sector. We also have the UK Space Agency which has already won many spurs.

To that end the Prime Minister, Theresa May s already tasked UK based engineering and aerospace experts to develop possible options and alternatives and that will clearly include potential development of a specific British designed global satellite navigation based positioning system that could hopefully be ready by the mid 2020’s. Whilst the UK going it completely alone would clearly be the most expensive option another possibility suggested is that the UK teams with other allied nations such as Australia. My understanding is that the Government will now act very fast on this in order to find the right future solution.

Apart from the benefits that it provides to everyone in the EU the Galileo programme was supposed to also be about mutual security of Europe just as it is also supposed to be about advancement of space technology. Whilst the EU decision to prevent British companies for being involved in future engagement in the Galileo project after current contractual arrangements expire is based on rules that from the outset of Galileo were designed to prevent third country involvement, I suspect that UK withdrawal from Galileo will not only raise the overall cost but also push the project well back. Even so and allowing for the fact that as far as I can see the EU is perfectly within their rights to freeze the UK out we must also remember that the decision is reasoned by Brexit. Thus the old adage that we made our bed and must now lie on it springs easily to mind.

Developing a separate accurate UK designed Global Navigation Satellite System by 2026, the year that the encrypted signal Galileo system is currently scheduled to be operational, will not be easy of course but by all accounts it is doable. I am told that recreating the 30 satellite Galileo Medium Earth Orbit system would probably be far too expensive for the UK Government to consider but that the alternative idea of building a larger number of smaller satellites that could potentially would be launched into Low Earth Orbit is considered feasible although not without issues.

Whatever the UK decides to do and whatever budget and time is allocated for any sovereign based proposal will need to be risk averse meaning. Consideration will also need to be given to launch costs as presumably there would be no appetite by the UK to use the existing European Arianne launch facility.

Having been involved in Galileo from the outset and having placed the many strengths that it has at the disposal of the collaborative partnership the UK might also seek to prevent export of encryption technology designed for Galileo, a move that could seriously delay Galileo operational capability. I hope that it doesn’t come to this and that a more sensible outcome can be negotiated.

There have been many well written accounts of the Galileo project in respect of technical details and of its current and future importance. However, given the importance of how Galileo was seen in respect of overall national security by nations involved and the part that it would play within our daily lives, here is a little context:

Agreed by an EU in 2003, the Galileo project today consists of approximately 19 satellites of an intended number which I believe is currently signalled as being in excess of 30 to be placed in medium Earth Orbit. These are intended to provide close to 1m positional accuracy for public users. The encrypted service is supposed to be more accurate that anything the US currently has and be more immune to interference and accessible only to approved users.

Galileo was in part developed because of EU fears of being overly dependent on the US. The point here was that with the military now almost totally dependent on satellite navigation should relations with the US ever deteriorate the EU might suddenly find itself stranded.

Having invested EUR 1.4 billion in Galileo and played a significant role on respect of industrial build of navigation elements and encrypted computer based systems and user access, that the EU has because of Brexit snubbed any possibility of future UK involvement is both regrettable for all those that have worked so hard to make the project work but also in regard of future cost for the EU.

What’s done is done and given that there seems little chance of the EU changing its mind the UK has no choice but to look at alternative options. I am n specialist in this important highly specialist technical area but even I can see that the best option available to the UK and particularly to the MOD, is for us to develop our own system as a replacement to Galileo. The UK has considerable expertise and the general consensus is that not only do we have the skills and availability to do this but that by our concentrating on our own development and removing the UK skills base that is currently engaged in the further development of the Galileo project could have serious implications for the EU.

Satellite navigation technique and requirement are an evolving subject and despite the relative ease that the UK could buy into what it requires there is a growing consensus that from the point of view of resilience that we need to have our own sovereign based satellite navigation capability both for our military and for public based services.

The very thought that the military and public could find itself denied access to sophisticated means of air, road and battlefield navigation, tracking and all the many other benefits that have been available over the near two decades beggars belief and won’t happen. This time be in no doubt that the Government gets it and will respond. The hope is of course that they make the right decision and go ahead with developing sovereign capability for the UK as opposed to buying into a system belonging to someone else.

CHW (London – 20th June 2018)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon




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