After months of speculation, the British government has committed itself to developing an alternative satellite system if negotiations over the EU's Galileo system fail. The UK Space Agency has announced that it will lead the £92 million (US$118 million), 18-month, Ministry of Defence study to begin design and development of a sovereign British navigation system should the country be denied access to the encrypted military parts of Galileo, or if the UK is frozen out of the program entirely due to Brexit.
Satellite navigation (popularly known as GPS after the American Global Positioning System), is something that needs no introduction. Over the past 60 years, it has gone from a laboratory curiosity to a technology that is so ubiquitous it's hard for anyone under the age of 30 to imagine living without it.
GPS is in almost every phone and in many newer vehicles. It allows us to navigate everything from giant freighters on the ocean to walking around a strange city with a simple tap of a screen or a voice command. We rely on it for driving, flying, surveying, land management, agriculture, stock-taking, deliveries, traffic monitoring, mobile phones, and even keeping track of the family dog. It has become so much a part of our lives that the loss of it wouldn't just be inconvenient, it would soon grow to be catastrophic.
The thing is, we are so used to using GPS on a daily basis, it's easy to forget that it started out as a military system for use by the US armed forces that – in a remarkable act of foresight and generosity – the US government made openly available for civilian use worldwide.
But it is still a military system and one that is central to military strategy, logistics, and tactics. Many GPS components are closely controlled under arms control laws to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands, and the US government reserves the right to degrade the accuracy of the system or even remove it from any but American military use if it sees fit.
Therefore, it's small wonder that many nations, both rival and allied, feel uncomfortable with being reliant on the US system and have developed their own as, at least, a backup. Over the years, Russia, China, India and Japan have created their own satellite navigation systems for the globe or their own regions, and the EU is deploying its own Galileo system.
This poses a problem for Britain because, though it is a major player in the Galileo program, its looming departure from the EU under Brexit has turned the system into a major political and diplomatic football that suffers from the pull of self-interest, negotiation strategies, and even vindictiveness.
Exactly what the fate of Britain's participation in Galileo is remains very much in the air, but recent government statements make clear that the matter is taken very seriously. The UK military is heavily dependent on satellite navigation, and the present European stance would deny the British access to the military parts of the system or even expel Britain from the program. Since the prolonged loss of satnav is estimated to cost the country £1 billion ($1.29 billion) per day, an alternative is needed
"So unless we receive assurance that we can collaborate on a close basis in the future – like the close security partners we aspire to be – we are clear that we will withdraw UK support for Galileo and pursue our own sovereign satellite system. And this is not an idle threat to achieve our negotiating objectives," said Prime Minister Theresa May in a recent statement.
Under the new plan, the British Global Navigation Satellite System is being developed by the UK Space Agency on a contingency basis to produce specific technical proposals under the guidance of the Ministry of Defence. The goal is to deliver a detailed technical assessment for the construction of a satellite system that has both civilian and encrypted capabilities, and is compatible with the US GPS system.
If it turns out that Britain remains a full member of the Galileo program, the projected work on spacecraft and antenna design, satellite control systems, cryptography and cyber security will be folded into the EU effort.
"The danger space poses as a new front for warfare is one of my personal priorities, and it is absolutely right that we waste no time in going it alone if we need an independent satellite system to combat those emerging threats," says Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson. "This alternative system and the UK's very first Defence Space Strategy which I will launch later this year will be a further boost to military skills, our innovative businesses and our genuinely world-leading role which has seen us make such a key contribution to Galileo."
Source: UK Space Agency
Want a cleaner, faster loading and ad free reading experience?
Try New Atlas Plus. Learn more