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Galileo to get public cash, agree EU ministers

Military aspects remain to be settled

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Controversial Euro satnav project Galileo should receive more taxpayer cash to get it moving again, European ministers have concluded. But lengthy wrangles over funding channels and control lie ahead.

Reuters reports that the European Union's current German presidency revealed the decision earlier today.

Galileo was originally supposed to be funded in large part by private-sector firms, who would recoup their investment by charging for paid location services. But the corporate sponsors had grave doubts over whether anyone would pay Galileo fees when the American defense department's Global Positioning System (GPS) can be used for free.

The European Commission (EC), the hardcore permanent structure of the European Union, has suggested that EU member-state armed forces would pay for the higher precision and better signal that Galileo could offer. This has appeared doubtful to many, as high-precision military "p-code" GPS is routinely offered by the US to its NATO allies. Thus, most EU forces already have military-grade satnav without paying a penny.

As for civilian customers, most are quite happy with the free GPS signal, in some cases augmented using so-called Differential-GPS ground stations to reduce the error. There was originally an expectation that civil aviation would pay large sums for Galileo-driven precise-nav solutions, but for various reasons this market hasn't appeared. Corporate Galileo partners have also mooted the idea of EU states forcing emergency services to use paid Galileo, but the idea proved unpopular.

Galileo really only makes sense to Europeans who critically need satnav and who also want the ability to operate without US approval. That could include a future independent EU military, a basis for which exists at present in embryonic form. As it happens, the EU Military Staff is to conduct its second-ever military exercise, MILEX 07, next week (pdf).

It's no surprise, then, that the EC is pushing hard for Galileo's taxpayer-funded forward progress. Great-power status in today's troubled world requires a nuclear industry, a space-rocket industry and, seemingly, independent satnav. The US and Russia have all those things, and the EC doesn't want a future United Europe left in fourth place behind China.

Equally predictably, the more Atlanticist EU nations - according to Reuters' sources - while agreeing to public Galileo funds, are manoeuvring against the eurocrats at the commission.

The wire service says "Britain, Germany and the Netherlands wanted individual states to help plug the shortfall by making contributions to the European Space Agency budget - an option they believe would limit Commission influence on the project and broaden the scope for industrial applications."

The UK and its allies would no doubt like to see Galileo tied in closely with the existing GPS, cementing NATO together rather than pulling it apart. As Reuters says, this would make civilian applications easier as existing GPS architecture could be re-used.

The EC - and France - might well have military independence from the USA as the primary consideration.

Concrete plans for Galileo's path ahead can't be expected until autumn, apparently. The Reuters report is here. ®

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