Star wars

Will the EU’s “civilian” satellites also be used to guide bombs?
December 16, 2009

Galileo: Europe’s answer to American dominance of satellite navigation. But what will it really be used for?

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.

Background discussions continued, though, particularly within the Galileo Security Board, a group of EU experts who meet regularly to discuss the system’s security and defence implications. In a recent response to one MEP’s question, Antonio Tajani, the EU commissioner for transport who set up the board, refused to rule out its application for military purposes.

There may be nothing intrinsically wrong with a military role for the satellites, but citizens of the EU are entitled to greater clarity about the nature of such a role. The term “military” can mean anything from traditional warfare to broader, mostly uncontroversial security tasks like peacekeeping. It is the latter that the European security and defence policy (ESDP) is based on. With access to 1,500-troop battle groups and, notionally at least, a 60,000-strong rapid-reaction force, the EU has focused on humanitarian, peacekeeping and crisis-management operations. In 2008, the European parliament approved by a large majority a report by MEP Karl von Wogau underlining the necessity of Galileo for “autonomous ESDP operations,” “Europe’s own security” and “strategic autonomy.” For the EU’s present defence force, then, Galileo’s involvement would seem a foregone conclusion.

But what about the future? Could Galileo also be pressed into service for a more explicitly offensive EU “superpower” strategy? “People are guarded in making that kind of an argument,” says Richard Whitman, an EU policy expert at the University of Bath. “What you’re much more likely to get is a kind of crab-like move to a much increased EU military capability.”

Yet even if Brussels has only modest military ambitions, the system’s other users might not. Like GPS, Galileo will have a pair of specially encrypted signals that are resistant to hostile jamming. This “public regulated service” is likely to be earmarked for the military, but it is not clear who will and won’t have access to the encryption codes. Could all EU states, as well as others such as Israel, which is participating in the project, be allowed to use it for their own military agendas? David Webb, who studies space militarisation at Leeds Metropolitan University, thinks this could create tension when some EU members take exception to the foreign policy decisions of others. “Take Iraq,” he says. “Everybody in Europe didn’t feel the same about that.”

Official documents shed little light on the issue. “It’s quite normal that you don’t find a lot of information about the use of Galileo for security and defence in the official documents,” said one Brussels source. “There is still no full alignment between the member states as to whether and how it should be used for military purposes. Britain is still against it.”

In a 2008 report from the Transnational Institute, an Amsterdam-based think tank, Frank Slijper suggests that Brussels is “afraid” to admit to the system’s role in future warfare. “It will therefore be a matter of when, not if, Galileo also is to be used to guide bombs and missiles to… perceived enemies, probably far outside Europe,” he concludes.

Galileo faces other potential stumbling blocks, not least China’s intention to launch its own system on the same frequency band. Assuming that these problems can be sorted out, the civilian benefits will be clear, but there is a worrying lack of transparency about what could also be one of the most powerful tools in modern warfare.