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Artist's conception of a Galileo validation satellite in orbit. If successful, Galileo will be the world's third global satellite navigation system. (ESA)

The Galileo Project

Why Europe wants its own satellite navigation program.

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One good thing did come out of Galileo’s lost years: a healing of the rift with America over the project. Wolfowitz’s letter and Europe’s response led to “some adult discussions” between the two sides, recalls Peckham. The Pentagon decided it was possible after all for Galileo to operate without compromising America’s ability to wage war.

The Europeans, for their part, admitted Wolfowitz had not been completely off base when he fretted about a system planned by civilians with only minimal input from the military. According to the Open Europe report, over the years, Galileo’s original satellite design has required close to 1,000 security improvements. (The most important was probably parting ways with China, which was supposed to be a partner in Galileo. China instead has developed its own regional satellite navigation system, called Beidou; India and Japan are also building regional systems. Russia’s GLONASS is currently the only other global system.) “Security was immature in the early days,” Peckham observes.

In 2004, the United States and the European Union reached an agreement on divvying the satellite spectrum that will enable Galileo and GPS to supplement each other, offering a seamless, enhanced network to every user. Observers with concerns other than waging high-tech global war on behalf of the Pentagon now say Galileo will enhance satellite security. Not because it is more secure than GPS—the signals of both systems are weak by the time they reach Earth, so both systems are vulnerable to jamming by enemies. But experts predict that the redundancy will produce at least some strength. “The systems work in approximately the same way,” concluded a 2011 British Royal College of Engineering report. But “with the implementation of the European Galileo system, the resilience of the combined GPS/Galileo system will be considerably improved.”

Since its reorganization in 2007, Galileo seems to be working better. It now has a clear chain of command, sort of. The buck stops with, and the money is disbursed by, the European Commission and by the EU’s Tajani, who has called Galileo “the heart of our industrial policy.” The system will help the environment too, he says. “Satellite navigation is essential for achieving greater efficiencies in transport and agriculture. So in that sense too, Galileo will be at the heart of our efforts to create tomorrow’s low-carbon economy.”

Galileo’s budget woes are far from over. There is a struggle looming over the 2014 European Union budget, and over the question of whether Galileo will get enough cash to complete the whole satellite array. Tajani and the EC have proposed €7 billion to deploy and operate Galileo from 2014 to 2021, which they claim includes €500 million in savings pre-wrung from more efficient procurement practices. But the commissioner himself doubts that the member states will approve it all. “Times are hard,” Tajani says. “We need to advance strong arguments why this program should be further supported.”

Necessary or not, Galileo has put down strong enough roots over 13 years that it cannot be pulled up easily. Europe may yet realize its cherished dream of becoming a major player in the satellite navigation world.

Craig Mellow is a freelance writer in New York who reports frequently from Europe.

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