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Space Cadets

An article on the Galileo satellite system, published in the Wall Street Journal Europe.
 

Behind the ubiquitous hand-held satellite navigation gadgets now readily available to consumers at ever lower prices lies a complex, expensive technology: GPS, or Global Positioning System. The satellites transmitting the radio signals that enable receivers to determine their location orbit the Earth invisible to the user and, courtesy of the Pentagon (i.e., the U.S. taxpayer), at no charge to the rest of us. So who would want to compete with an absolutely free service? Answer: the EU.

Brussels seems determined to forge ahead with its planned rival satellite system, Galileo, despite the project being years behind schedule, with costs running out of control, and there being little enthusiasm from the private sector to invest in a project that seems to offer little in the way of commercial prospects or added value.

The military nature of the American system is usually cited as one of the main arguments for the necessity of a European, "civilian" alternative. It is true that the U.S. system was set up essentially for the benefit of the military to target missiles and check positions on the battlefield with great accuracy. The benign spinoff is the free but slightly less accurate version for civilian use. The U.S. government, however, retains the right to switch off the civilian system to avoid its use by enemies.

The EU apparently considers this potential loss sufficient to justify the multibillion-euro Galileo program to effectively provide a duplicate GPS. Yet the U.S. is currently fighting two wars halfway around the globe and still hasn't felt it necessary to switch off  GPS access. If ever the U.S. were to face a war or threat of such a magnitude as to warrant such a step, the inconvenience of having to rely again exclusively on road signs and maps for land navigation should be the least of Europe's worries. If their main ally came under such serious attack, Europe would be well-advised to switch off its own Galileo system as well--provided it's ever switched on in the first place--to deny America's enemies access to it.

The much-touted civilian control of Galileo can be of little significance in the real world. At least as important as who controls the navigation system is who uses it and for what purpose: Is it a harmless tourist looking for his hotel, or a terrorist programming the target mechanism of a nuclear missile? That's why the U.S. would surely find a way to block any rival systems in the event of a serious threat, and why it's inconceivable that the EU would not also shut down its system if it were to be misused by an enemy. In the meantime, it has been suggested that Europe's military should also use Galileo, which would further blur the whole military-civilian distinction.

So if a U.S. shut-down would only come in a situation where the Europeans would want the civilian service interrupted as well, what would be the rationale for a redundant system? As a backup in case of a technical failure? Since the mid-1990s, when GPS became fully operational, it has been remarkably stable and glitch-free. There are 27 satellites in orbit, three of which are spares in case of problems with any of the others. Like any system designed with military use in mind, it is pretty resilient. So what is the real motivation behind the European project?

Could it be that Galileo is actually a prestige project to prove that Europe can still play big boys' games? If so, it looks like this particular game is in danger of ending in tears. Brussels always claimed Galileo would also make a lot of commercial sense. Apart from the theoretical advantage of being available at a time of nuclear war, Galileo is supposed to be accurate to one meter as opposed to the approximately 15 meters of the current civilian GPS. How valuable Galileo's greater accuracy would be is, at best, debatable. Most people capable of handling a sat-nav system should be sufficiently clued-up to figure out that the takeaway pizza place they were looking for was actually next door to where they had ended up. What's more, an upgrade to the American system is in the pipeline, and may well appear before Galileo goes live. If an upgraded GPS continues to be free, how on earth is anyone likely to make money out of Galileo?

Little wonder that attempts to put together a consortium of businesses to fund and manage the project have failed. Having financed the early stages of the project, the European Commission had intended to pass the baton on to an industrial consortium of eight companies from France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the U.K. However, last week, they failed to meet their deadline to form a legal entity. We can only conclude that they saw little chance of making a decent return.

The only option remaining is for the EU itself (that is, you, the taxpayer) to fund the building and launch of the system, which originally was supposed to be fully operational already this year. But rather than now smugly using our own shiny new European version of GPS, we have managed to put only one of the planned 30 satellites in orbit. The launch for a second one had to be aborted. The current goal for completion of the project is 2012, a date which still might be pure science fiction.

And yet it looks likely that European citizens will now have to contribute a rather larger amount than previously intended to introduce a slightly improved system for which there is no demonstrable need or commercial justification. The additional costs--not including the likely overruns--would be €2.4 billion, on top of the billion or so already spent. Should Galileo ever take off without private companies stepping in, Europe's taxpayers would also be left with paying for maintaining and running the redundant system year after year. This is not a good way to improve citizens' opinions of the Brussels institutions.

The German government, which holds the rotating EU presidency, has sought to reassure an anxious world that "Europe's most important high-technology project" would go ahead. If this is how we run our most important project, I shudder to think what is happening to lower priorities.

Mr. Livermore is Director of the Scientific Alliance