Galileo euro-satnav 'driven by French military', says sacked CEO

German sat kingpin fired over bleedin'-obvious Wikileak

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The classified US diplomatic cables allegedly leaked to the world by American private soldier Bradley Manning have caused ructions in Europe this week: the CEO of a German firm building satellites for the Galileo satnav project has been fired for apparently telling US diplomats that Galileo is a waste of taxpayers money and primarily useful to the French military.

Norwegian paper Aftenposten, trawling through the endless piles of cables, reported last Thursday that Berry Smutny – CEO of German space firm OHB-System – supposedly told American diplomats in 2009 that in his view "Galileo is a stupid idea that primarily serves French interests" – particularly French military interests.

Nonetheless, OHB-System subsequently went on to win a huge €566m contract to build the first 14 operational Galileo satellites. Now, the company's board has decided to remove Smutny from his post "with immediate effect", according to the BBC. Smutny denies that he ever made the remarks reported by the US diplomats who drafted the leaked cable.

Galileo is intended to offer timing and navigation services similar to those now provided by the Global Positioning System (GPS) operated by the US military: the free-to-use civilian signals of the American GPS satellites are employed by the vast majority of the world's car satnavs, smartphones and other location-enabled devices.

Un-augmented GPS currently offers accuracy well inside 30m in most circumstances and coverage is generally excellent, with 32 satellites in space as this report is written. (Only 24 are required for worldwide service, but users notice a significantly better service with 30 or more.) The USA reserves the right to cut off the civil GPS signal, but this would be a major step – it is unlikely to happen at all, and if it does, the cutoff would be limited in duration and most likely to a specific area.

Apart from the immensely popular civil signal, there is an encrypted military GPS signal, the keys to which are possessed by the US military and its allies. At present this service is required to make US, British and French intercontinental nuclear missiles strike their targets accurately. If a warhead is limited to its own inertial guidance and star sights en route it can still hit close enough to its aim point to destroy a large unprotected target like a city. However, for effective nuclear strikes against such things as hardened, buried missile silos or deep bunkers, satellite guidance is required; this, in fact, was the primary reason for the original construction of GPS. In more recent times GPS guidance has been added to many other military systems: smart bombs, missiles of various kinds, the navigation systems of planes, ships, tanks and nowadays even individual soldiers.

Britain, which imports its missiles (though not the nukes or the launching subs) from the USA, has also been happy enough to rely on US satnav in the event of wanting to make precision "counter-force" type nuclear strikes rather than simply unleashing armageddon on an enemy nation. France, which places much more value on freedom from America, has always chafed at the thought that its nukes – and nowadays its smartbombs, cruise missiles, tanks, planes, ships etc – require the use of American satellites to be fully effective.

All this being the case, it's possible to see why Smutny may have privately considered that the primary beneficiaries of Galileo will be the French military. Once the European satnav system is fully operational, its encrypted government-users-only "public regulated navigation" signal will allow French nukes and smartbombs to strike accurately no matter what the USA may do.

Quite why anybody else particularly needs Galileo is far less clear, with GPS already free and as dependable as most people could reasonably ask for. Galileo is expected initially to offer superior accuracy, perhaps as good as 1m once enough spacecraft are in orbit, but operational Galileo birds won't start coming on line until 2014 – about the same time as America's GPS Block III spacecraft will start coming into service offering similar accuracy. By the time Galileo has achieved worldwide coverage, it probably won't be any more accurate than GPS.

Certainly it was the view of the private sector that nobody needs Galileo that much – certainly not enough to pay for it. It was originally hoped that private investors would fund the system and make their money back through encrypted pay services, but this didn't seem like a good idea to money men even back in the happy years before the credit crunch. For a long time Galileo went nowhere.

In the end, the officials of the European Commission put together a plan to pay for Galileo using unspent farm subsidies which would normally have been returned mostly to the national treasuries of the UK, the Netherlands and Germany. The project moved forward, and after intense negotiations regarding what work was to be placed in which countries, contracts for early satellites and launches were awarded early last year.

Exactly when or if Galileo will achieve its planned 30-strong satellite fleet (or even the 24 required for worldwide service) is unclear: it has been suggested that the planned funding cannot in fact deliver the full system, and that more money will have to be found down the road to finish it – and perhaps then to operate and maintain it. In theory, commercial revenues are still expected to cover running costs, even though acquisition is now being covered with government money.

There is a small benefit for ordinary satnav users, however. Galileo has been designed so that it will be simple for future ground receivers to use it and GPS both at once. This is quite handy as funding issues and technical delays in the States are expected to mean that the number of GPS satellites will drop below 30 in coming years (though not below 24): but future smartphones and dashboard sets will be able to use the combined, perhaps one day 50-plus-strong GPS/Galileo fleet and get good service regardless.

Elsewhere, Russia is nowadays rebuilding its GLONASS satnav constellation, once a rival to GPS but which fell into disrepair after the Cold War. China has also stated aspirations towards a satnav system. ®

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