Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Galileo and Brexit

My previous post outlined why access to a Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) such as the American GPS or European Galileo systems are vital for a country's commercial and military well-being.

Unfortunately, in their infinite wisdom the EU have decided that a post-Brexit UK:

  • will not be allowed to continue being involved with the system's development;
  • that UK companies will not be able to bid to construct hardware; 
  • that they would restrict the UK's access to sensitive data. 

This means that whilst the UK will be able to continue using the public signals, they will not have trusted access to the system's encrypted military codes (PRS) and its national security elements.

Trust matters. As non-EU members, the UK might be able to negotiate passive access to the encrypted PRS signals - but without direct knowledge of how the system has been designed at the broadcast end, and without people in the control rooms, the UK cannot guarantee that such access would be maintained. If the UK were ever in a conflict or war that EU members did not agree with, they could cut off or degrade the service. Such passive access is essentially pointless - if they do not trust the UK enough to give full access, then the UK cannot trust them to maintain access.

The Falklands Conflict is an example scenario. If such a small-scale conflict was to occur again, with the UK standing alone against another country, it can be assumed that both sides will be using GNSS - in fact, it is likely that our high-tech military would rely on them more. If one of the Galileo EU members was against the conflict, they could decide to degrade Galileo coverage over the relevant conflict zone, restricting the UK's ability to use it. The UK would have no voice or power to prevent it.

In the immediate future, this disrupts the MOD's plans to integrate secure global positioning, timing and navigation into their systems, which requires access to Galileo's PRS or GPS's M-Code. In addition, UK governmental agencies cannot use it to support critical national infrastructure.

It also means that UK companies that have been building parts of the satellites will not be able to continue doing so. Airbus has said that its bids for further work on the Galileo system is being moved out of the UK to Germany and France, along with 80 jobs.

Access to the enhanced capabilities of the MEOSAR search and rescue system may also have to be stopped.

So far, the UK has given £1.5 billion for our part in the project; in return UK companies have received back £1.15 billion in work. Teresa May has announced that we will not try to claim back the payments we have made to the project. Allegedly officials have been going around UK companies involved with the system to tell them to stop sharing propriety information with other Galileo parties.

So what can the UK do - assuming the EU is unwilling to change its mind?

The UK government has put aside £92 million to study the effects withdrawn access to the Galileo PRS codes would have. Much of the technology was developed in the UK; the first prototype satellite (GIOVE-A) was designed and built by SSTL in the UK, so the technical know-how exists. Some estimate that a replacement UK system could cost anything from £3 billion to £10 billion. Airbus claims £5 billion and five years of work.

There are problems: many of the people required to make such a system are EU nationals resident in the UK - would they want to remain to work on the project, and would the UK want them working on what would be a national security asset?

Perhaps the biggest problem is not monetary, but legislative. Any new system would need frequencies allocated to it internationally. This would need to be negotiated through the International Telecom Union, and this may be a slow process. Back in 2003, the US and the EU had a big argument over the frequencies used by Galileo, and it is going to be difficult to negotiate access to frequencies that will not interfere with other systems.

The radio frequency spectrum, especially in the frequency ranges required by this sort of system, is getting very crowded. It will also require us to use political capital that will desperately be needed elsewhere. To make matters worse, many cellular providers want to use these parts of the spectrum for 5G services.

The UK cannot start designing the system in detail until the frequencies are known, as it is the key factor in determining the design - and even the satellites' orbits.

Creating a UK GNSS constellation to replace Galileo is almost certainly a non-starter, if only because the cost is probably far too great for only military use. For that reason, the UK might want to cooperate with another player. Russia is rather unlikely, as is China. Japan's system is local and designed for their specific needs. Australia is a possibility, but do they really require such a system?

So how about India? They have the technology, and launchers - but their system is currently only regional. It might be tempting for them to have someone else pay for the system to be deployed globally.

A better approach may be to create a capability that the EU does not currently have - for example some form of secure global communications - and swap trusted access of that for trusted access to Galileo. Even this would be very expensive, although it might prove easier and quicker than the UK  developing its own GNSS.

The Galileo debacle does not bode well for the rest of Brexit. It should have been easy to sort out, but it appears to have become an impossibility. The EU may gain slightly from the decision in the short term: work that was going to be done in the UK will now be done elsewhere in the EU, whilst the UK has already paid in more than they have got back in work. But the chances of the successor project to Galileo - already in planning - going ahead is reduced, and the running costs of the Galileo system will fall upon the other countries.

There will be second-order effects as well: for instance, the Galileo system was initially developed by ESA, before it was taken over by the EU. The UK is remaining part of ESA, which continues to administer and operate the system. It is possible that such disagreements will infect the UK's relationship with ESA, especially when many ESA projects involve EU funding.

But there are always silver linings: perhaps the UK government will decide to go ahead with their own satellite constellation (perhaps calling it 'Boudica' or 'Waterloo') and dust off their road pricing ideas to pay for it ...

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