Brexit Bind: Why it makes little sense for Britain to build own...

Brexit Bind: Why it makes little sense for Britain to build own GNSS system


There is no denying that the United Kingdom has the technical know-how to build its own satellite navigation system, but spending billions and decades on a totally new setup just doesn’t sound rational. 

March 31, 2019. That’s when Brexit comes into effect. That’s also when UK will no longer be part of the prestigious Galileo satellite navigation program of the European Commission. That is unless some other deal is hammered out, albeit on a later date. But as of now, this is final.

After investing £1.4 billion and years into Galileo, Britain finally walked away from the project in November 2018. Now, the UK government has set up a taskforce to look into the proposal to launch a satellite navigation constellation of its own. It has even gone one step ahead and earmarked about £92 million for the project ($118 million) from the Brexit readiness fund.

While there is no denying that the UK has the technical know-how to build its own satellite navigation system, spending billions and decades on a totally new system just doesn’t sound rational, unless of course it becomes a matter of prestige.

Why it makes little sense?

Satellite navigation systems are expensive and complicated affair. They are usually known to face delays and cost over-runs. Galileo itself faced decades of delays, difficulties and additional costs. It would have taken 18 years to build before being fully operational in 2021. In this background, it would take many, many years before UK can even have a system in orbit.

The cost of building Galileo has already touched almost $11.6 billion from its initial estimate of $3 billion. Then there is an annual maintenance cost. For Galileo, it is estimated to be around €800 million ($927 million). This is way more than double the current total budget of the UK Space Agency, which was £371 million ($477 mllion) in 2017.

“This is pie in the sky: the costs would dwarf the entire UK space budget, all for a system redundant, and likely years behind and second tier, to that of its close allies!” Planet CEO Will Marshall wrote in a recent blog post.

There is more — UK doesn’t launch its own satellites. Either the US, Europe or India has to do the job for it. Galileo satellites are currently launched from ESA’s site in French Guiana.

Will Galileo be inaccessible to UK?

Not yet. Not in the near future. The civilian service signals of Galileo are free, accessible to all — including UK — and are not at the center of dispute. What EU has refused to grant to UK post Brexit is access to the Public Regulated Service (PRS) of Galileo — a secure and encrypted signal for defense and government purposes that is meant solely for EU member states.

Also, UK gave away the game too early when it walked out of the negotiations late last year without even pressing much on the rights for a passive grade use of the 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 UK will become post Brexit — from participating in the development of security-sensitive projects. This is simply because access to PRS is limited to only EU members and not to a “third country”. And this is not some overnight development. Britain has always known the terms and conditions when it signed on the dotted line.

How PRS denial doesn’t really affect UK armed forces?

It is not as if denial of Galileo PRS services to UK will severely impact the British armed forces. This is because the Galileo PRS doesn’t exist yet 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 or 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 is global in 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 an indigenous satnav system after the US denied GPS signals to India during the Kargil war with Pakistan in 1999. Japan has been working on its own Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS) 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 neighborhood.

But in the case of UK, 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 get into a war. Similarly, there is little chance of UK entering into a war with EU in the near future, making the hoarse cries for “super sensitive signals” for military unnecessary.

What are the alternatives?

Instead of building a totally new system from scratch, UK can look at setting up a regional navigation system like India or Japan to boost local coverage. But then Europe already has the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service. EGNOS is Europe’s regional satellite-based augmentation system that is 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 before UK is to go for further strengthening of ties with the US, committing to complete reliance on GPS. UK, 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 Marshall categorically spelt out, with Brexit, the UK will be a country lost in space. “The UK space industry represents €12B in business and about 40,000 UK jobs, all of which are at risk with Brexit.” This is when the UK space sector is very closely woven with the rest of Europe.

Galileo is funded by the European Union but managed and operated by the European Global Navigation Satellite Systems Agency (GSA) and European Space Agency (ESA). ESA functions independently of EU and therefore the UK will remain a member of ESA, but can’t participate in any EU-funded work of ESA. UK’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 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 said it better.

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