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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 September, 2003, 11:15 GMT 12:15 UK
Galileo project
Galileo, Esa
The Iraq Crisis presented the world with a stark choice: they either stood with America or with much of Europe. There is, or could be, an even more basic choice: where, literally, you stand.

The Global Positioning Satellites which can help answer that question are a matter of life and death, and the key to an array of multi-billion dollar industries.

America dominates the world of GPS. But it faces a European challenger - the Galileo project, and the Americans are worried. They're even claiming that Galileo is a threat to global security.

Our Science Editor, Susan Watts, investigated whether America's real interest is its military dominance of space.

The Royal Greenwich Observatory has a 300-year old connection with the search for accuracy in defining our position on the Earth. This observatory was built to solve the famous problem of longitude. For those early timekeepers, the problem was immense.

No less so now, when almost everything we do depends on precision timing. Today, satellite positioning is the hidden technology behind so much of modern life. We take it almost for granted.

These New York cabs include the latest gimmick made possible by Global Positioning Satellites or GPS. Ads for local businesses are beamed direct to shoppers as the cab negotiates the city's crowded streets.

But satellites control less trivial parts of our lives too. Not just the ubiquitous mobile phone, but synchronising financial markets and underpinning much of today's transport systems, automatically routing freight and people around the world's plane, train and shipping networks.

(Council on Foreign Relations)

Estimates vary but there are billions of dollars of commercial revenues. It's important however to see that GPS is really a utility. Some people have called it the fifth utility, after water, gas and electricity. It shares common attributes with them. High fixed costs to start and then very low marginal cost. The difference here is it's not low marginal cost to add a new user, it's zero marginal cost, like a radio.

But there's a European challenger to America's GPS supremacy, and after years of Euro-wrangling, the Galileo satellite constellation is about to enter its critical final phase. The European rival is deeply unnerving for the American military. It's difficult to jam without disrupting America's own military use of GPS. In theory at least, it's an attractive asset for terrorists, and it leapfrogs GPS technology.

Why is it Europe needs Galileo when we have a very successful GPS system operating?

(European Space Agency)

GPS is successful, that's correct, but this is a monopoly of one state. If it was a monopoly of an internal governmental organisation, we could accept it maybe, because then you could say that all member states have a say in the system and the use of the system and how it could be improved and so on. But today GPS is a military system, belonging to one country and this country can decide to change its specification and switch it off if necessary.

Due to be up and running in five years, and billed as the first wholly-civilian navigation system, Galileo consists of 30 small satellites, this is a quarter-size model, working together in a constellation. Galileo will be Europe's largest ever collaborative space project, and crucially for the politicians who secured its funding, Galileo means lucrative contracts for Europe's high-tech industries for years to come.

As a powerful symbol of technological, economic and even cultural independence from America, Galileo also taps into those parts of the European psyche keen to see military independence for Europe.

This summer, a small British company, Surrey Satellite Technology, beat larger European rivals to sign the contract for the first Galileo test satellite. Professor Sweeting and his company now have a strict timetable for their part in this latest advance in navigation technology. He joins a British ancestral line that stretches back to John Harrison, hero of the longitude problem.

(Surrey Satellite Technology)

It's critical for Europe that we're there on time because in 2006, the frequency allocations lapse, and so if Europe does not have a satellite operating in orbit by that time, then those frequencies will lapse and we'll have to start the whole process again, and maybe we'll not be successful in getting those allocations.

The engineers may be confident their part of the project will run smoothly, barring a mishap with a satellite launch. The politics could prove harder to sort out.

Europe and America have clashed because America wants what amounts to a veto over Galileo in times of military need, in other words, to be able to knock out the entire Galileo system. The problem is that one of the main signals Galileo will use for its public service is the same as one the US military has also set its sights on. America claims this risks interference problems. The Pentagon also wants to be able to switch off any civil system at any time. But if it blocked the Galileo frequency, it would also be blocking its own military signal, obviously a disaster.

They are saying the following; if Galileo is a civil system, they feel they should be able to jam all civil systems existing in the world. If Galileo is a military system, then they could accept it, but then there is negotiation within the framework of NATO. But since it is a civil system, then they feel they should be able to jam it, all civil systems.

America's GPS is a thoroughly military system, conceived and run with Department of Defence cash, and commercial use is added on almost as a fortuitous afterthought.

Satellite technology in battle became a necessity after incidents like Fallujah in Iraq ten years ago, when a laser-guided bomb killed scores of civilians because it couldn't see its target. In Serbia four years ago, around 3% of bombs were GPS-guided. That figure reached 60% in the recent war in Iraq. American military top brass has taken space technology to its heart.

Though reluctant to discuss this on camera, the talk is getting tougher. Recent US military rhetoric has increasingly stressed the value of space and satellite-guided weapons, and with a newly defiant tone.

(US Air Force Secretary, 13th April 2003)

If the allies don't like the new paradigm of space dominance, they'll just have to accept it.

(Air Force Under Secretary, March 2003)

We want the ability to see everything and know everything, while simultaneously denying our adversaries the ability to do the same, and the knowledge that such capabilities are being used against them.

The US wants to maintain a superiority in space. It has seen, even in the recent conflicts, how central that is to its ability to conduct campaigns overseas, and therefore anything that either erodes that superiority, or worse still, jeopardises it, will be taken very seriously indeed by the American military, and so it's entirely understandable that they would much rather Galileo didn't exist.

The two sides of the Atlantic can work together in space, as they've shown on Space Station. Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle or ATV, is essentially a giant dustbin in the sky, ferrying supplies up and rubbish back down. Europe believes co-operation on Galileo is possible.

A cunning technical fix is close, apparently, for the problems of frequency overlap, and there's a new plan on security. Europe's suggesting a NATO-based group to guarantee the system secure, and take the wind out of America's argument that it needs freedom to jam Galileo.

(Vice-President, European Commission)

We are for example, just today negotiating with the Americans solutions to guarantee to GPS the full security. We are interested in having a secure system. So, I think that this is the way, the way that we Europeans, we take our own responsibilities and we are ready to do it.

Satellite technology showed the observatory a few years ago that the Meridian line is ever so slightly in the wrong place. It should be a few feet over there.

Unless America and Europe can resolve their positions before the end of the year, Europe will have no choice but to go ahead without America's seal of approval. There are plenty within Galileo prepared to do that, even if it means aggravating the transatlantic relationship.

Could it be, as one former European defence minister suggested to Newsnight, that America's purported concerns over the military security of Galileo are really a cover, that America's real worry is that Galileo represents an economic threat to US high-tech industries? It certainly fits, given Europe's stated motivation for Galileo.

We have the capacities, the knowledge and the technical development to have the ambition to be there and to participate also. With the Americans and not against them, but with them.

Cynics say America is biding its time on Galileo, waiting for a chink in European harmony that might derail the plan. It wouldn't be unheard of for a European project to fail. But with the Chinese and Russians keen to become partners in Galileo and the European Commission proving welcoming, America's military strategists may not be prepared to sit back and watch.

This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

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