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Why It Makes Little Sense for Britain to Build Its Own Global Satnav System

Why It Makes Little Sense for Britain to Build Its Own Global Satnav System

After investing GBP 1.4 billion (Rs 12,641 crore) and many years into Europe’s Galileo satellite navigation system, Britain walked away from the project in November 2018. Now, the British government has set up a task force to examine a proposal to launch a satellite navigation constellation of its own. It has even earmarked about GBP 92 million (Rs 830.7 crore) for the project from its Brexit readiness fund.

While there is no denying the country has the technical know-how to build its own satellite navigation system, spending billions and decades on a new one doesn’t seem rational – unless it can be reasoned away as a matter of prestige.

Satellite navigation systems are expensive and complicated. They usually face delays and exceed their initial budgets. Galileo itself faced decades of delays, difficulties and additional costs. Ultimately, by the time it is fully operational in 2021, it is expected to have taken 18 years to build. Its cost has already touched almost $11.6 billion (Rs 80,462 crore) from an initial estimate of $3 billion. Then there is the annual maintenance. For Galileo, it is estimated to be around $927 million – more than double the current total budget of the British space agency: $477 million in 2017.

It will take Britain take many, many years and lots more money before it can even have a system in orbit, leave alone an operational one.

Further, Britain doesn’t launch its own satellites, and will have to rely on the US, Europe or India to get the job done. Galileo’s satellites are currently launched from the European Space Agency’s site in French Guiana.

Accessibility in the UK

Further, Galileo itself won’t be inaccessible in the UK, at least not in the near future, but not for technical reasons. The system’s civilian service signals are free and accessible to all – including to people in the UK – and are not in dispute. What the European Union has refused Britain after Brexit is access to Galileo’s public regulated service (PRS), a secure and encrypted signal for defence and government purposes meant solely for the EU’s member states.

The UK also gave away the game too early when it walked out of negotiations late last year without pressing much on the rights for passive use of PRS. In addition to anti-jamming and anti-spoofing capabilities, PRS increases the likelihood of continuous availability of the signal-in-space and is therefore beneficial to military and security agencies.

Further, British companies can’t participate in contracts for developing and building PRS anymore, because the terms and conditions bar companies of “third countries” – which is what Britain will become post-Brexit – from participating in the development of security-sensitive projects. And this is not some overnight development: Britain has known the terms since it signed above the dotted line.

Then again, it is not as if the denial of Galileo PRS to Britain will severely impact the country’s armed forces. This is because the Galileo PRS doesn’t yet exist, and is expected to be operational only around 2020. The British military can simply keep on doing what it has been doing so far: rely on GPS services.

It is true that governments don’t want to rely on “outsiders” when it comes to military and other security-related matters. While the whole world was running on GPS – the satellite navigation system owned and operated by the US Air Force – Russia built its own satellite system called GLONASS, which has been operational since 1993 and has global coverage. China has BeiDou, which went global in January 2019. Currently, Galileo’s coverage is nearly global, with only a few gaps.

Other countries like India and Japan have built their own regional satellite systems. The Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (now called NavIC) has been operational for some time now and offers coverage over the Indian subcontinent. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was asked to work on this system after the US famously denied its GPS signals to India during the Kargil war with Pakistan in 1999.

Japan has been working on its own Quasi-Zenith Satellite System for some years now. Regional satnav systems are independent positioning systems whose main objective is to provide reliable position, navigation and timing services over a particular country and its neighbourhood.

But in Britain’s case, there seems to be hardly any military compulsion. It is a close political ally of the US and it is highly unlikely that the two will ever get on the wrong side of each other, let alone go to war. Similarly, there is little chance of the UK joining battle with the EU in the near future, making the hoarse cries for “super-sensitive signals” for the military unnecessary.

The alternatives

Instead of building a totally new system from scratch, Britain can consider setting up a regional navigation system like India or Japan to boost local coverage. Of course, Europe already has the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service (EGNOS), used to improve the performance of existing GNSS systems such as GPS and Galileo. It has been deployed to provide safety of life navigation services to aviation, maritime and land-based users over most of Europe. However, this augmentation works only over Europe and not outside.

Another alternative is for Britain to further strengthen its ties with the US, committing to complete reliance on the USAF GPS. Britain, along with Australia and Canada, already participates in a combined space command with the US and this could be taken forward.

Space rivalries have often been less about rationale and more about countries’ prestige. As Will Marshal, the CEO of Planet, wrote on Medium, with Brexit, the UK will be a country lost in space.

Galileo is funded by the EU but is managed and operated by the European Global Navigation Satellite Systems Agency (GSA) and the European Space Agency (ESA). ESA functions independently of the EU, so while Britain will remain a member of the ESA, it won’t be able to participate in any ESA work funded by the EU. Then again, Britain’s relationship with the ESA could be the next casualty since ESA’s agenda is set by the EU.

“To be a member of ESA and not the EU will be like Norway in a single market but not in the EU: accepting all the plans and rules (and payments!) but without a voice at the table” – Marshall couldn’t have put it better.

This article was originally published on March 29, 2019, at Geospatial World and has been republished here with permission.

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