Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/09/18/galileo_scepticism/

Galileo scepticism rife even in Brussels

Only satellite builders truly enthusiastic

By Lewis Page

Posted in Science, 18th September 2007 11:39 GMT

Reports from Brussels suggest that European and national officials are beginning to acknowledge the lack of any firm consensus regarding the funding - or even the need - for the planned Galileo Europe sat nav constellation.

At a conference organised by French international-relations think tank IFRI, various government and corporate figures expressed their views. The conference was covered by Space News writer Peter de Selding.

Carlo des Dorides of the European GNSS Supervisory Authority told Space News that Galileo would take four and half years to complete from the time of a go order - and it seems that full approval is not realistically to be expected before 2008.

"If the green light is not given until next year, then further delays are unavoidable," des Dorides said.

Galileo test equipment is alreay in orbit, and European government funds of €1.5bn have already been spent. However, it has now been accepted that private sector cash for construction will not be forthcoming in the absence of any obvious revenue stream. This means that European governments must find at least a further €2.4bn in order to build and orbit the satellites themselves - if they genuinely wish to do so.

The UK government, for one, is sending out mixed messages on the subject, with many British MPs unable to see the point of building an expensive new satellite constellation when the existing, US military-funded Global Positioning System (GPS) architecture is already running and free for all to use.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the title of the draft IFRI conference agenda (pdf) is "Should Europe continue with the Galileo Programme?"

Apparently even the European Commission (EC) - the permanent bureaucracy of the European Union, and naturally a citadel of pro-Galileo sentiment - has its realists.

"Does Europe want or need its own satellite navigation system?" asked Matthias Ruete, EC director general for energy and transport.

"We have 27 member states. For each member state, we have five or six different authorities, all driving in different directions."

Ruete is, of course, pro-Galileo, but he admits that there isn't any direct, visible money to be made from it (other than for companies who might build, launch, and run the satellites). Like most of his EC colleagues, Ruete favours Galileo because it makes Europe less dependent on the United States' GPS.

"Do we want to make more and more critical applications dependent on a system over which we have no control?" he asks.

Views differ regarding just how critical sat nav actually is to the civilian economies of Europe, though it is true that sat nav is becoming indispensable to modern military forces. It's also possible to submit that a future in which US-European relations had declined to the level of GPS access being denied would require a lot more precautions than just building Galileo. A Europe which really wanted to be independent of American military help - even to keep the peace in its own Balkan backyard, let alone face down a resurgent Russia alone - might need to seriously change its economic model. The rich European countries spend very little of their money on defence.

But these are deep waters. For now, even building Galileo will be a tough test for the nascent European government/alliance. The commission is to issue its recommendations tomorrow, and national transport ministers will discuss them next month. Raising €2.4bn across Europe will be far from impossible, but political horse-trading about where the money gets spent will be vastly more difficult.

Countries with established space industries will feel that the cash should go to them; others will see this as a chance to develop their own high-tech sectors and build high-paid value-added employment.

David Iron of Logica - a leading UK satellite provider in the past - said government funds for Galileo would generate jobs and economic activity, the tax yield on which would more than repay the initial investment. The EC suggests that 150,000 jobs might be generated, but Iron said a far lower number would still be good news.

"If you take one-fifth of that number - 30,000 jobs - you still generate some €600m in economic activity and that covers the cost of the system," he stated. "Galileo is justified on the tax-return basis alone."

Critics in the UK parliament and elsewhere have suggested that many of the sat nav-related industrial and service jobs have appeared and will continue to appear regardless of Galileo, using GPS infrastructure for which European taxpayers need not cough up a penny. EC officials like Ruete, of course, would see such employees as economic hostages in the power of Washington.

Overall, the purely business and economic case for Galileo seems hard to make. The military-strategic argument is far stronger, but Europe mostly lacks any serious willingness to maintain or use military force - let alone any strategy for doing so. Of the two exceptions to this rule (France and the UK) only France seems to truly want independence from America. Even in France nobody is really keen to pay for it unless they get all their own money back - and maybe some more - in contracts.

The full Space News report is here, courtesy of Space.com and Yahoo! ®