The UK’s threat to establish an alternative to the Galileo satellite system is a clever Brexit bargaining position – but should be no more than than that.
This article was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by Tom Jones. Tom is the former Deputy Editor of Raddington Report and has written defence articles for a range of media outlets and can be found tweeting at @
Britain’s place in the cosmos, it seems, is under threat. The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has consistently reiterated his plans to restrict access to the Public Regulated Service (PRS) aspect of the €10 bn Galileo programme (the highly encrypted element which would be largely used by militaries and government). PRS is currently only available to EU Member states – post-Brexit, the UK will be classed as a ‘third party’, thus excluding British companies from bidding on contracts to build or maintain the Galileo project and requiring the UK Government to negotiate a new deal with the EU in order to provide access to the PRS.
As a response to Barnier’s threats, Business Secretary Greg Clarke has launched a task force to investigate the UK setting up an alternate and independent version of Galileo. Whilst the UK aerospace and space sector is doubtless more than capable of producing such a system, the fact remains that this ambition is largely a bargaining position – and should remain so.
Galileo, which will become active in 2020, is actually duplicating the work of the pre-eminent satellite navigation, the American Global Positioning System (GPS) – it was, in fact, originally set up in order to reduce European dependence on the American system. There is undoubted benefit to having two systems operating concurrently; dual systems increase accuracy, and also provide far greater reliability. The development of a system exclusive to the UK would also provide a huge boon to the UK’s space sector. The withdrawal from Galileo has the potential to see British businesses millions to European rivals and see thousands of hi-tech jobs lost, but the development of a system utilising the full extent of Britain’s aerospace and space sector talent would see the sector boosted, rather than simply protected from any potential losses.
However, Airbus’ UK managing director Colin Paynter stated the cost of development of an exclusive UK system would be between £3 & 5 billion over 4 to 5 years and estimated that the annual cost of the system would be somewhere around £800 million. This would be a huge amount of money to find for the government, especially allowing for the usual cost and time overruns so typical of large government-backed technology projects.
There are non-budgetary problems, too. The UK currently has no launch systems, requiring an outside partner with the capacity – such as the EU, China, India, Russia or the US – to launch and maintain the system. The work that British companies have already done on Galileo cannot seasily be duplicated, either, since some of it may be protected by non-UK patents. There is also the issue of the limited available radio frequency on which to send the signals back – this has already been the subject of a severe disagreement between the US and the EU when Galileo was being developed in 2003, as the US argued Galileo’s signal was too close to that used by GPS.
A more apt solution would be, simply, to renegotiate back into the PRS fold. British companies have valuable skills which the project would do well not to lose; Airbus currently manages the project’s ground control centres, Surrey Satellite Technologies produces the payloads for the satellites and CGI UK have developed much of the security around PRS. Whilst Michel Barnier will no doubt sting Britain at the negotiating table, it is likely that the resulting agreement will likely still be more cost-effective than developing, establishing and maintaining a wholly new system – particularly given that Britain intends to keep a close security relationship with Europe.
It is easy to dismiss nay-saying around a Galileo alternative as unambitious, grey-sky thinking. However, to ‘strike a match, go start anew’ at such great cost would in fact go against the traditions of British space policy, which has always been founded on strong and clever collaborations with partners such as the EU and US providing a huge capability for remarkably modest public expenditure.
To spend the cost of a relatively sizeable naval surface fleet simply to spite our former partners in Europe seems to be rather counter to the British way of space.