Europe’s Satellite Navigation System Goes Live


Europe’s Satellite Navigation System Goes Live

Europe’s Galileo system reveals its superpower ambition.

Europe’s satellite navigation system, Galileo, went live on December 15. The project is a result of the European Union’s refusal to continue relying on the United States and shows its determination to join the “big leagues.” Until now, only the two Cold War superpowers—the U.S. and Russia—have had their own satellite navigation systems.

The milestone comes as the EU makes the military uses of its space program more public.

Satellite navigation—far beyond a simple convenience for travelers with a poor sense of direction—has been growing in importance. Automated vehicles of all kinds rely on navigation systems. They are heavily used in mining and have even led to the advent of “precision agriculture.” From construction to archaeology, more and more uses for the technology are being found.

But it is modern militaries that rely most heavily on satellite navigation, which is why Europe has been so determined to build its own.

Keeping track of your own forces and tracking enemy forces with pinpoint accuracy is a huge bonus on the battlefield. So are smart munitions—bombs, missiles and individual artillery projectiles—guided exactly to their target.

The world only really needs one navigation system. But no nation wants its military to be dependent on another’s—so half a dozen powers are working on their own version of the Global Positioning System (gps).

America’s gps, or Navstar, is the most well-known satellite navigation system. Russia developed its Global Navigation Satellite System (glonass) during the Cold War. It fell into disrepair, but Russian President Vladimir Putin invested heavily in its restoration, and it now covers the whole world.

The Chinese are working on their BeiDou or Compass system. It currently only operates in the Asia-Pacific region, but they plan to have global coverage by 2020. India and Japan are also working on their own regional systems.

Just about every major power in the world wants its own navigation system.

Independence from America has been at the heart of Europe’s efforts right from the start. In 2001, French President Jacques Chirac said that without Galileo, EU nations would become “vassals” to America. In 2002, EU Directorate-General for Transport and Energy (the department overseeing the Galileo satellite navigation project) noted that “Galileo will underpin the common European defense policy that the member states have decided to establish.” The report continued:

There is no question here of coming into conflict with the United States, which is and will remain our ally, but simply a question of putting an end to a situation of dependence. If the EU finds it necessary to undertake a security mission that the U.S. does not consider to be in its interest, it will be impotent unless it has the satellite navigation technology that is now indispensable. Although designed primarily for civilian applications, Galileo will also give the EU a military capability.

The system now has 18 satellites. It needs 24 to become fully operational. Another eight will be launched in 2017 and 2018. Europe aims to have a total of 30 satellites, so that it has spares for backup. Until it reaches full operational capacity in 2020, the system will not be available at all times.

The system also aims to be more accurate than America’s gps, giving accuracy to around one meter for free and within centimeters for paying customers.

At first, much of the Galileo system was relatively hostile to the U.S. American leaders worried that a nation they were at war with could benefit from Galileo. EU officials stated that they would not prevent American enemies from accessing Galileo in time of war. In fact, they planned to have Galileo operate on the same frequency as gps—meaning America could not jam an enemy’s access to Galileo without jamming its own access to gps.

U.S. Air Force officials threatened to shoot down European satellites if such a situation arose, causing Europe to back down. The frosty relationship caused by the two competing systems has since thawed.

The EU likes to emphasize that its system is a civilian project, unlike the Russian and American systems. But for all practical purposes, they are the same. Galileo is also set up so that, in times of crisis, it can be restricted to only European military personnel and emergency services.

German Member of the European Parliament Reinhard Bütikofer claimed that the European Commission had deliberately hidden how widespread the military uses for the project were. Until March 2011, documents “did not even hint at the extent of the military uses of the project,” he said.

Had he been paying better attention, he would have seen it from the start.

The military uses of other European space programs are also becoming more evident. On October 26, the EU released its first ever space policy document, which highlights the military importance of its efforts. “Space is also of strategic importance for Europe,” it notes. “It reinforces Europe’s role as a stronger global player and is an asset for its security and defense.”

The document states that EU space programs will consider “additional services” to help meet “emerging needs” in Europe’s “security and defense.”

Another major project of Europe’s space program is the Copernicus Earth Observation System. It was originally touted as a tool to support “environmental security.” But the EU has tweaked the wording, ever so slightly; its purpose now is to support “the environment and security.”

The European Parliament’s stated military purposes for the system include “border monitoring outside the EU” and “EU peacekeeping operations”—in other words, European military operations.

“There is no Earth-observation project as big as Copernicus,” said former EU chief scientific adviser Anne Glover. “It’s already abundantly clear that the system will also be used for military operations and surveillance purposes.”

The new policy document promised to “assess further the potential” of Galileo and Copernicus to “meet EU autonomy and security needs.”

Europe’s push for independence in space shows its aspirations to have a military independent of the U.S. The term “strategic autonomy” has become increasingly common in European official documents—both at the EU and national level. Europe wants to be able to act on its own and act around the world. And with the U.S. so dependent on technology, Galileo and Copernicus have the potential to turn America’s space advantage into a weakness.

Watch for Europe’s continued push to make its military independent of America’s gps. For more on the progress nations around the world are making in becoming space powers, read “The Quiet Space Race.”