On 12 October 2012, two days before Felix Baumgartner’s free-fall jump from the stratosphere, and with considerably less publicity, a much more important event took place in space: two satellites of the ‘Galileo’ system were put into orbit.
Galileo is a global navigation satellite system (similar to the U.S. ‘GPS’ and the Russian ‘Glonass’) which is managed and funded by European Commission and European Space Agency. If the future of Galileo was initially uncertain (the business consortium meant to build the project collapsed in 2007) the first two satellites were finally put into orbit in 2011. The launch of two more satellites this October marks another watershed in the development of Galileo and, despite Europe’s gloomy economic outlook, it seems that the project will be fully operational by the end of the decade.
The rationale for the system lies in Europe’s desire to be independent of the United States. For GPS was originally a military system and Washington retains the option of shutting down its civilian application. If that happened Europe would be thrown into communications chaos.
The US consequently did not initially welcome the initiative when mooted in 2003, claiming it was an unnecessary duplication of effort. Behind this line of argument there was, however, the Americans’ fear that China (which had joined the Galileo project in its early stages but left afterwards) might use the system in a future conflict with Washington. The U.S. also raised concerns about a possible frequency overlap between Galileo and GPS. Such were their concerns, U.S. officials were quoted saying they would consider using ‘irreversible action’ against European satellites if used by Washington’s adversaries. During the same period, similar transatlantic tensions concerning issues like the Passenger Name Record agreements and Customs Security came to the fore.
Unable to put off the Europeans, Washington reconciled itself to the inevitability of Galileo and subsequently all the talk has been of exploiting possible mutual benefits and creating devices that can use both systems.
Indeed the US now seeks to exploit Galileo’s secure ‘public regulated service’ (PRS) signals for both military and civilian purposes. While these talks are still in an early stage they mark an important step in transatlantic relations. They might stimulate the emergence of a wider transatlantic space-security community of experts bound with shared understandings. As more Galileo satellites come into orbit in the near future the saliency of cooperation in this area will certainly increase, to the benefit mainly of the private sector in both sides of the Atlantic.
Perhaps this is one part of the EU budget even some Conservative MPs might not want to cut?
Dimitrios Anagnostakis is a PhD student researching US-EU security relations.