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Euro GPS Galileo gets ready for nuclear missile use

Encrypted defence-grade signals received and deciphered

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Back in March, The European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) global positioning system (GPS) alternative Galileo successfully found a ground location at tests in The Netherlands.

With only four of its satellites visible at once, the ESA was chuffed that the system worked for the first time and popped out a canned statement to that effect.

It has since emerged that the March tests weren’t just on the garden-variety version of the service that might find its way into consumer-grade devices.

Galileo’s various signals include the "Public Regulated Services" (PRS), an encrypted offering the EU says “will be restricted to authorized users by governments for sensitive applications that require a high level of continuity.”

What kind of users does that mean? The EU says “The PRS is reserved to the Council, the Commission, the Member States, possibly to duly authorized agencies of the European Union, third countries and international organizations” who will use it for “emergency services, critical transportation, energy or telecom and defence purposes.”

The page we’ve linked to above goes on to say that “even if Galileo is the first civilian GNSS in the world, nothing prevents the Member States to use it for military purposes.”

News that the spooknav capabilities of Galileo are working emerged in another canned statement from QinetiQ, which together with Septentrio made the kit capable of slurping the signal. QinetiQ says its boxen found objects to within ten metres of their actual location.

PRS’ existence has not been hidden and it’s been flagged to come online in 2014, so it’s not as if QinetiQ’s statement represents either a revelation or an unfortunate slip.

But in these post-Snowden times, knowing that the European Union’s members will soon be able to access secure, encrypted, location services is surely worth knowing whether you’re a freedom-loving individual or a government with an interest in tracking things. Throw in the recent signoff for the eCall emergency car-tracker and it’s clear the EU is about to get lot busier finding things.

Reg readers may also wonder just what PRS means in light of the fact that plenty of smartphone-makers are keen on Galileo, as multi-constellation navigation is regarded as giving punters a better experience. ®

Bootnote

As many Reg readers will be well aware, the encrypted Galileo signal is its version of the encrypted military-users-only signal offered by America's GPS. Being encrypted, such signals are pretty well impossible to spoof and can only be used by those holding the relevant keys (meaning that one can if desired switch off the unencrypted signal and so deny service to all users other than the US military and its friends).

The GPS encrypted signal - and indeed GPS itself - was originally provided mainly for the purpose of enhancing the accuracy of US nuclear missiles back in Cold War times. An unaided ICBM warhead can hit within a mile or so of its aim point using only inertial guidance, which is sufficient to destroy a city, but to effectively knock out such things as buried silos or deep bunkers sat-nav assistance is required.

Nowadays many other military things make use of encrypted GPS: cruise missiles, smart bombs, jets, tanks and warships, even individual soldiers.

Some of America's NATO allies have always chafed at being so dependent on the USA for such a vital military service. In particular, France has never been pleased with the idea that its fully independent nuclear deterrent needs US help to make accurate counter-force type strikes.

Thus some people do tend to suggest that for most users Galileo is pretty much a nice-to-have, strictly optional thing. Only for the French military (or other non-US-aligned EU forces) is it truly desirable. The German CEO of one of the firms building it rashly said as much to US diplomats a while ago.

So we can see that encrypted Galileo is mainly about French nuclear missiles (or other EU military kit) as opposed to spies. -Ed

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