The Galileo Project

Why Europe wants its own satellite navigation program.

Artist's conception of a Galileo validation satellite in orbit. If successful, Galileo will be the world's third global satellite navigation system. (ESA)
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The backroom struggle over a Galileo partnership—the public-private idea being backed by the capitalist-oriented north (Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands) but opposed by the Social Democratic south (France, Italy, and Spain)—was resolved by an unlikely party: the U.S. Department of Defense. Europe’s leaders were still struggling for consensus at the time of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Washington’s attitude abruptly hardened toward anything conceivably related to security, including a rival satellite network in the hands of its allies.

In December 2001, all 15 EU military ministries received a letter from Paul Wolfowitz, U.S. deputy secretary of defense, urging them to reconsider Galileo. The European network, he argued, could end up hogging spectrum that the U.S. military wanted for future GPS applications. That would “significantly complicate our ability to ensure availability of critical military GPS services in a time of crisis or conflict,” he wrote.

Wolfowitz went on to impugn the competence of mere civilians to mess with strategic satellite navigation technology. “I do not believe the current civil forum being used by the EC provides the proper venue to fully assess the security implications,” he wrote.

His missive backfired badly, rallying Europe around Galileo rather than scaring it off. French President Jacques Chirac, the continent’s most vocal critic of America’s post-9/11 policy, personally took up the cudgels for Galileo. The program, Chirac said, was essential to keep united Europe from becoming a “vassal” of the United States. It meant, he said, “we would not have to accept subjugation in space matters.”

Chirac was apparently so anxious to resist American arm-twisting that he agreed to the public-private partnership Galileo scheme that was championed by his British counterpart, Prime Minister Tony Blair. The council of EU transport ministers at last approved the satellite network in March 2002. The private sector was supposed to foot two-thirds of the bill.


But two valuable years, 2000 through 2002, had passed with Galileo stuck on the drawing board. And the intra-European skirmish over whether to go the partnership route turned out to be mere warm-up for the battle over which private contractors would participate, and on what terms. The heavy hitters of European aerospace—the United Kingdom’s Astrium and Inmarsat, France’s Alcatel and Thales, Hispasat and AENA of Spain, Finmeccanica of Italy—went into a lobbying frenzy, backed by their respective governments, that caused four years of planning gridlock, according to the Euro Parliament inquiry, as well as a similar study by the European Court of Auditors.

In 2006, the companies decided to form one master cartel to negotiate with the Eurocrats. But while Europe fiddled for half a decade, the world of satellite navigation had changed. Free GPS had made its way to millions of cars, computers, and mobile devices all over the world, including Europe. In 2007, the would-be private financiers walked away, and Galileo looked like it might crash and burn.

The collapse of the investor talks happened at a most inopportune time politically. The European Union drafts its joint Brussels-controlled budget only once every seven years, and 2007 marked the start of a new cycle. In theory, no new funds would be available until 2014. But the centralized European Commission bureaucracy sprang into action, shifting €3.4 billion from other programs so the Union could build its satellite network without private money.

As usual, Britain grumbled. The extra money from Brussels “made a mockery of the complex process of negotiations and compromises” that had gone before, Blair’s government complained, according to the Euro Parliament’s report. But the money remained committed, at least through 2013.

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