Galileo : Europe's £18bn space Maginot ?

By Florian Chevoppe | 24 October 2011

To quote this document: Florian Chevoppe, “Galileo : Europe's £18bn space Maginot ?”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Monday 24 October 2011,, displayed on 02 April 2023

On 4 October 1957, the Soviet Union triggered what we call the Space Race, by launching Mankind's first artificial satellite : Sputnik 1. While America's program lagged behind, it took Europe twenty more years to have a credible space program of its own. But it quickly closed the gap on the superpowers and accomplished great things : the Ariane rockets, Guiana Space Centre, Hubble Telescope, International Space Station - Europe is indeed a big player. But recently it has taken a slightly paranoid turn : what if America decided to unplug the Global Positioning System (GPS) and leave us in the dark ? So, in the early 2000s, Europe launched the Galileo project, designed to give the continent -and the world- the most accurate and entirely civilian positioning system. But as with any European project, it is now more than five years late and costing extra billions every year. Have we become so warry of the United States that we are preparing for World War III ? Do we really need this system or is it already obsolete even before completion ?


The Europeans are great inventors. It is a Briton who invented the steam locomotive, a Frenchman who invented the daguerreotype, and a Belgian who invented the saxophone. But it is undoubtedly the Germans who spearheaded the conquest of space, but after the war, brains tended to leave Europe. The Americans, through Operation Paperclip, and the Soviets, on Gorodomlya Island pillaged German wartime technology and manpower, and started space programs of their own. As it became clear that the Cold War was here to last, the technology was used to fuel an arms race, where each could deliver all sorts of weapons, including nuclear, to each others major cities and strategic sides from the other side of the Earth. By the mid-1955s, the USA and the USSR both possessed missiles called ICBMs (Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles), and the Soviet Union opened the Space Age with the lunch of the world's first artificial satellite on 4 October 1957 : Sputnik 1.

America's answer, on 31 January 1958, was Explorer 1. While tracking these satellites, American scientists discovered that because of the Doppler effect, they could track the exact location of the satellite, and that it would be possible for a satellite to track the location of something on Earth. The necessity for a permanent nuclear deterrent at sea through SLBMs (Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles) increased the need for help from satellites since submarines needed to know their exact positions  -which they rarely knew- to launch their missiles. So in 1960, America launched its first satellite system, Transit, followed by Trimaton in 1967 capable of accurate positioning in under an hour.


Europe takes it to the stars

In 1973, a top-secret meeting between the American Chiefs of Staff decided that America would build a global network of satellite, and after the crash of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, President Ronald Reagan decided that this service, the Global Positioning Service (GPS) would be freely available for civilian use. To this day, 60 satellites have been launched, and 31 remain in orbit. An extra 36 are planned to be launched from 2014. It is used in today's world for almost everything, from emergency services coordination to pet tracking and from navigation of all means of transport to cellular telephony. But as with everything, there is a downside. The GPS is a vital tool of the US military : it is used for tracking, missile guidance, navigation of land air and sea forces as well as monitoring nuclear and EMP detonations.

Therefore the United States Department of Defense maintains a feature called "Selective Availability" (SA) equiped on all satellites which adds at will errors of up to 328ft (100 meters) to navigation signals anywhere on the planet - the US can effectively shut down their GPS at will. Therefore, there have been alternative projects : the Soviet Union did indeed start the rival GLONASS project from 1982, which was taken over by the Russian Federation and finalized in 1995. It covers the planet and competes with the GPS. China has, like Japan, taken steps to create an independent navigating system, and it also aims at creating a global system. There is also a similar project in India, and indeed, with the Galileo project in Europe.

Europe never originally considered an independent space program. Great Britain developped an embryo of a satellite launched, the Blue Streak, but cancelled the expensive program in 1955. It is France who spearheaded the European space program. After the Soyuz crisis, it convened a meeting of European scientists to assemble a common program. In 1961, Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES) and started building the Guiana Space Centre, which was to become Europe's spaceport. A collective Western European measure was the founding in 1962 of the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO) to develop Europe's first and own launch rocket : Europa. The initials launches took place in Woomera (Australia), but soon moved to Kourou.

The European Space Research Organization (ESRO) was founded in 1964, helping Europe catch up on America, which it did by the early 1970s at which time major cuts were being made in Soviet and American space program budgets. In 1975, ELDO and ESRO were merged to form the European Space Agency (ESA), and it became with its 10 members (Belgium, Denmark, France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom) a major player in space exploration. First and foremost, it developed its first launch vehicle : Ariane 1. Now in its 5th version, it is a commercially successful and reliable launcher. It carried many operations with NASA such as IUE, the first high-orbit telescope, and the Hubble Space Telescope. It has also asserted its capacities by being a major participant in the International Space Station (ISS) and with the Mars and Venus Express missions.


Do we really need Galileo ?

With now 19 members, the ESA started ten years ago one of its most ambitious programs yet : the construction of its own, independent and civilian global navigation satellite system - Galileo (named after Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei). It is not just an ESA project, but the European Union is also involved, along with Morocco, the Ukraine, South Korea, and Norway. But does Europe really need this  £7bn (€20bn) project ? This decision is clearly aimed at America, it means that the Europeans feel Washington could someday in the future act in an unfriendly, and that European and American interests could one day clash, not just at the UN or the Olympics, but on the battlefield. Or that the US military could use the threat of a GPS black-our over Europe as a way of imposing its will - the official website of the ESA reports that the Commission "estimates that 6-7% of European GDP – around €800 billion [£696 billion] by value – is already dependent on satellite navigation".

So to them, America could potentially use this to their advantage. But would America really hurt us ? Would America turn against its oldest allies, Britain and France, its most reliable, Germany or Turkey, or its newest, like Albania or Estonia ? This is very highly improbable and one has to go very far to even find a B-series SF film that would even consider a war between the European Union and the United States of America. But Washington did prove to be slightly annoyed at this project : in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, it officially protested the program saying it would impede its ability to jam signal anywhere it wants to, which is... the point.

Some American officials suggested that the US military might be forced to shoot down Galileo satellites where European signals would be used against American forces in a major conflict, bringing the two systems to an agreement whereby Galileo would use a different frequency, effectively allowing the Americans to jam it. But Galileo is far from being a reality and it has faced many delays. To this day, only two test satellites (GIOVE-A and GIOVE-B) have been launched, along with two In-Orbit Validation (test) satellites. While the project stalled through the 2000s, things seem to have accelerated since 2010. The European Commission announced the project would not be completed before 2018, unveiled several billions of euros in extra costs because the project has not moved fast enough, and announced that Prague was voted to host the headquarters of the system. However, Berry Smutny, CEO of the German satellite company OHB-System was recently quoted in a Wikileaks publications as saying that Galileo "is a stupid idea that primarily serves French interests".

While some may think that Galileo will serve European technological innovation and help keep the European space program at the level of NASA, others won't help but despise the extra billions that it already costs us. Europe has failed to proved it was determined to build this system and now the deadline is moved back every year - but then again this is what happened with GLONASS, and it is fully operational. What is certain however is that by not including a jamming system Europe has perhaps omitted that not everyone on this planet uses technology for peaceful means : what are the implications and responsibility of Europe if a terrorist attack is ever committed with the help of Galileo ? What if Iran or North Korea launches a missile against New York or Rome using our system ? And at last but not least, will the Europeans really switch from GPS to Galileo and how much will it cost to upgrade all our existing equipment ? Is it not, as was the Maginot Line, an already obsolete and easily destructible line of defence ? Let us hope we never find out.


Image credits : NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center / lolodoc