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From route planners in cars to air traffic control, navigation on earth (and underwater) is now dependent on GNSS - global navigation satellite systems technology. The systems enable a position to be determined to the precision of one metre or less. The US has been resolute in limiting the scope of an European initiative in this field, the Galileo project, due to become operational around 2008 – as this would challenge the monopoly position of its own GPS (Global Positioning System). While GPS hand-held devices are now commonplace, the responders to receive the better quality signals – such as those needed by fighter aircraft entail costs starting at $100,000 and are subject to tight export controls.
At stake is not only the ubiquitousness of US technology but also a fundamental issue of ‘asymmetric usage’, whereby the US claims the right to degrade signal traffic for its own strategic benefit. Gustav Lindstrom, a research fellow at the EU Institute for Security Studies has 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”.
The European concern is justified. During the first Gulf War in 1991 the US Department of Defence (DoD) degraded GPS signals received by commercial GPS equipment. Any one with a finger on the GPS on-off switch can shut down civil aviation.
The US opposition to Galileo has been expressed through a wrangle over the utilisation of the radio frequency spectrum. The international authority with oversight of the finite spectrum is the World Radiocommunication conference (WRC). The conferences had agreed to Galileo using a signal in a narrow band of radio frequencies, the L1 Band (1563-1587 MHz) that is best suited for high quality signals that will give sub-metre precision. However the US DoD objected because it seeks to use L1 for a secure military-purpose signal (designated the ‘M’ code, not to be introduced till 2012 – which is some indication of the DoD’s planning horizon). This is not withstanding the decision of 2000 WRC held in Istanbul that overlaps or ‘signal overlays’ would be allowed because there was just not enough bandwidth on the L1 band.
The US argued that Galileo would interfere with its signal, and moreover, their close proximity would mean that if it decided to ‘shut down’ or jam L1 traffic, this would also impair military operations. It appears that in talks held in Brussels in February 2004 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. Some EU officials have contended that the US intention is to undercut Galileo's accuracy in the name of defending allied security while in fact boosting US business interests.
Galileo’s main backers in the EU are France and Italy. The UK’s position is inordinately influenced by its naval 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.
The GPS infrastructure, comprising a constellation of 24 satellites orbiting the earth, is managed via a number of controlling stations, one of which is at Diego Garcia, a British territory in the Indian Ocean that has been provided to the US at considerable human cost – its entire indigenous population was forcibly resettled in Mauritius.
The dual-use Galileo project however is an opportunity for Britain to wean itself from what former defence minister Peter Kilfoyle describes as a ‘vassal’ like dependency on the US.
The first Galileo satellite is scheduled to launch late in 2004, and will be followed by 29 others. The project implementation costs are in the region of £3 billion (Euros 3.2 – 3.6 billion). The main UK companies participating are the Vega Group plc and Surrey Space Technology Ltd. The US investment in its GPS system is equally aggressive, with plans to upgrade its satellite constellation at a cost of $1.3 billion. It is important for civil society to keep tabs on such large scale satellite technology projects. These are not merely the cornerstone for a new wave of space-based weaponry, but also new forms of surveillance: it is now possible to recreate conversations that have gone on inside a room from the vibrations of its glass windows. The world can ill-afford any one power with full spectrum domination.