Could Britain collaborate with Australia on a Galileo alternative?

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LONDON — As the United Kingdom continues to wrangle with the EU over access to, and involvement in, the European Galileo global navigation satellite system (GNSS), there is growing speculation that the country could seek to develop its own independent system with Australia — or even Japan.

So, how likely is such a partnership?

And what would be the implications of such a move, for both Britain and the remaining EU member states?

Defence Space Strategy

Earlier this week, two Whitehall officials told the Financial Times that Australia has indicated a potential willingness to collaborate with the U.K. in the development of an independent satellite system.

In a May 21 statement coinciding with the Air Power Association’s inaugural Defence Space 2018 conference here, the Britain’s defense secretary, Gavin Williamson, also hinted that the long-awaited U.K. Defence Space Strategy, due this summer, could contain some provision for an alternative system, and confirmed the importance of reviewing Britain’s contribution to Galileo, as well as how it plans for “alternative systems in this crucial area.”

"It's not impossible but I am skeptical," said Bleddyn E. Bowen, founder of The Astropolitics Collective. Credit: Twitter
“It’s not impossible but I am skeptical,” said Bleddyn E. Bowen, founder of The Astropolitics Collective. Credit: Twitter

However, according to Bleddyn E. Bowen, lecturer in international relations at the University of Leicester and founder of The Astropolitics Collective, the “reality” is that a British replacement for the Galileo GNSS “will not meet the most pressing needs of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in space” — namely “ISR assets, broader Earth observation platforms, resilient and dispersed communications on top of the Skynet backbone, offensive counterspace capabilities, increased space situational awareness, and personnel able to do space operations and analyse the data and services provided by satellites.”

Moreover, although he believes there is no doubt the U.K. can collaborate with Australia on developing an alternative system, Bowen warns that the chances of success are “slim.”

“It’s not impossible but I am skeptical. It will not be easy. One hurdle is the opportunity costs of such a massive program, relative to space spending, and another is the security and sovereignty elements,” he says.

Bowen also points out that the estimates of 3-5 billion pounds ($4 billion to $6.7 billion) for a single satellite program “for a country with a space budget of 370 million pounds and a defence budget of 35 billion pounds is significant” — a factor he believes is “particularly true given the opportunity costs such a sum creates in the U.K. defence budget and space sector.”

Artist's view of two Galileo satellites released into orbit. Credit: ESA
Artist’s view of two Galileo satellites released into orbit. Credit: ESA

“Building a triplicate navigation system following GPS and Galileo may not be money well spent compared to building the U.K.’s first intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance satellites, or buying a series of additional Type 26 destroyers, or addressing chronic personnel shortages, for example,” he says.

“GPS and Galileo running costs are almost $1 billion per year. Gaining input from Japan or Australia would help share the costs. There is no debate on whether 3-5 billion pounds on this is worth it, given other spending priorities,” he adds.

In view of these facts, Bowen finds it difficult to imagine that the MoD would be pleased with

“such a massive sum being thrown into space whilst it has had to make decades of cuts and is chronically short of personnel.”

This is particularly because there are “many defense priorities in space and on Earth that are more appealing as taxpayer investments than a third GNSS system within the NATO alliance” — and there is “no clarity at the moment of which government department will pay for a U.K. GNSS.”

Moreover, although he admits that some parts of U.K. industry would benefit from a U.K. GNSS — particularly those involved in Galileo — Bowen cautions that other sectors of the U.K., like imaging, launch development, science applications and materials engineering will “not directly benefit.”

“GNSS-relevant companies in the U.K. are integrated in the entire European space industrial base — like Airbus, which is moving Galileo production to the EU already to save its contracts.  Other space companies will have to learn new tricks or try to hire Airbus employees that are not tempted to move to the EU to follow the company’s GNSS work for the EU,” he says.

Five Eyes

Sophia Besch, research fellow at the Centre for European Reform in London, says it “makes sense for the U.K. to look to its traditional Five Eyes defense partners like Australia" but that such pivot is not without drawbacks. Credit: Centre for European Reform
Sophia Besch, research fellow at the Centre for European Reform in London, says it “makes sense for the U.K. to look to its traditional Five Eyes defense partners like Australia” but that such a pivot is not without drawbacks. Credit: Centre for European Reform

Elsewhere, Sophia Besch, research fellow at the Centre for European Reform here, says that, by aiming to solidify the U.K.’s place at the forefront of European space developments, the U.K. Defence Space Strategy will “help to make the case to the EU that letting Brexit get in the way of cooperation would be a loss for both sides.”

That said, she warns that the U.K.’s space industrial and scientific ambitions, as outlined in the strategy, are also “under threat because of the row with the EU” – particularly since “U.K. exports depend on the single market and U.K. researchers depend on EU funding.”

In developing an alternative to Galileo, Besch believes it “makes sense for the U.K. to look to its traditional Five Eyes defense partners like Australia.” However, if it did decide to develop an independent system, she points out several potential disadvantages for the U.K. space sector, including “loss of access to the single market, loss of funding opportunities, loss of influence over European space industrial and research projects, increased competition with EU firms and potentially lengthy negotiations over the complementarity of the U.K. program, GPS and Galileo.”

The advantage would be a boost for U.K. firms if the government decides to spend the money and invest in a U.K. system,” she says.

Practical Implications

Ultimately, Bowen predicts that the EU space sector would also benefit if the U.K. decided to develop a separate system, largely because EU member states would “take on the work Britain would otherwise have had.”  However, although specific sectors would benefit in the U.K. and EU, he also warns that taxpayers on both sides of the English Channel would lose out “because this will make Galileo more expensive for the EU and the U.K. will waste 3-5 billion pounds on a triplicate of existing GNSS infrastructure.”

“Somebody else will make a lot money launching all of these new satellites from the U.K.,” he says.

In terms of the practical implications of U.K. GNSS cooperation, Bowen also stresses that Australia is an “even smaller spender than Britain, so isn’t that attractive financially.”

“Its space spending is miniscule, its defense budget smaller that the U.K.’s, and it has recently made large spending commitments in the U.S. [Wideband Global Satcom] system. The opportunity costs would be greater in Australia than in the U.K. and Japan,” he says.

“The U.K. only did 15 percent of the work on Galileo … but both Australia and Japan are pursuing regional GPS augmentation systems. There may be synergies with U.K. experience in Galileo’s GNSS and their regional systems,” he adds.

As far as any potential collaboration with Japan is concerned, Bowen points out that, even though it “can more likely afford contributions,” it is “not as intimate a security partner as Australia.”

“GNSS technology is very sensitive and the U.K. guards its cryptographic and [signals intelligence] tech closely. Australia is in Five Eyes; Japan is not.  So, whilst U.K. and Japan are allies via the USA, and the U.K. is exploring some joint development of missiles and next-gen aircraft, a GNSS system would get into a new, far more sensitive area of cooperation that would need to be negotiated.” he says.

“So, Australia [is] good for security but not for the money [while] Japan is better for the money but a bigger security integration headache,” he adds.

Another problem that occurs to Bowen is the sovereignty of the system — and even though the U.K. has made noises about an independent, or “British,” system, he stresses that once tenders are taken from other countries, they will “not only want industrial returns, taking away from U.K. industrial profits and jobs, but also some executive control over the system.”

Bowen is also confused that the U.K. authorities seem suddenly unhappy with the notion that both GPS services and Galileo could end up being “outside British control” — particularly since Britain has spent decades “not really caring that much and relying on America come what may.”

However, if such sensitivities turn out to be indicative of a permanent change in mindset, he argues that any cooperation and integration with new partners like Australia would “undermine the drive to secure UK industry and sovereignty” — anathema to what he describes as the “Brexit rallying call for a ‘new British’ system.”

In recognition of the challenges of opportunity costs for the U.K., Australia, and Japan in space and defense more generally, plus the “thorny issues” of pooling sovereignty with Australia and Japan, Bowen argues that seeking to remain part of the security aspects of Galileo “is a more fruitful avenue for British space diplomacy.”

“If we can cooperate with Australia or Japan on this, why can’t the U.K. continue to trust the Americans with GPS — as we have done for decades — and re-establish ourselves within Galileo given the U.K.’s new status as a third party?  Both are cheaper, and the latter is more likely to yield fruitful results than building a new system,” he adds.