Published in Prospect, 16 Dec 2009
Will the EU’s “civilian” satellites also be used to guide bombs?
By 2013, if all goes to plan, a constellation of European satellites will have launched into the sky to form Galileo, a new instrument for satellite navigation. According to the European commission’s brochure, the €3.4bn (£3.1bn) system is “specifically designed for civil purposes”—including sat nav for cars, oil drilling, aviation and shipping. It will create 100,000 jobs, as well as €200bn of new markets in areas like transport, energy, finance and agriculture.
However, absent from this list is any mention of the military. Since the 1980s, the US global positioning system (GPS)—Galileo’s only fully operational counterpart—has helped co-ordinate the US military’s ground, sea and air operations. Today, GPS guides drones, smart bombs and cruise missiles, and is one of the key assets that makes the US a superpower.
Galileo began life in 1999 to provide satellite navigation independent from the US. Financed chiefly by EU civil budgets, the 30-satellite project was intended to be more accurate than GPS and, crucially, operate even if the US chose to switch off GPS signals at times of conflict.
At the start, Galileo’s military potential was also an open, if cautious, talking point. In 2001, the then President Chirac said the system would help “the development in Europe of a common security and defence identity.” Britain was a co-founder of that identity but, mindful of its special relationship with the US, it was less keen on a military role for Galileo, and by the following year public talk of military use disappeared. […]
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