PARIS — The European Commission’s argument that its Galileo satellite positioning, navigation and timing program is a hedge against the day when the U.S. government arbitrarily shuts off GPS — for whatever reason — has been a driving political motivation for Galileo since the project’s beginning in the mid-1990s. 

So has the idea that GPS, which is funded mainly by the U.S. Defense Department, should be seen as inherently unreliable for nonmilitary users compared with Galileo, which is 100 percent financed by civil authorities.

U.S. government officials — military and civil — have gone hoarse over the years explaining that GPS has been formally declared a dual-use system overseen by a civil-military board. The infrastructure, often described as a global utility, generates thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in annual commercial revenue and underpins the global financial system in addition to being the default positioning and navigation service for the NATO alliance. 

A scenario in which GPS would be simply shut down — outside of limited-area jamming during a war — is inconceivable, they say.

Despite these assurances, and perhaps because of Galileo’s unstable financial history, the European Commission continues to wave the GPS-shutoff-threat shibboleth. Here is an example of it from the commission’s “Why we need Galileo” brochure:

“How secure is your security?

“From the beginning, the American GPS system has been aimed at providing a key strategic advantage to the U.S. and allied military troops on the battlefield. Today, the free GPS signal is also used around the world by security forces such as the police.

“Stieg Hansen is a retired military officer from Malmo now representing a large producer of security systems. Today he is speaking to a group of people at an important trade show. Behind him, a bold sign reads, ‘GPS for Security.’ His audience includes a number of stern men and women, and one person who looks like a journalist.

“‘The Stryker, as we like to call it in the field, is the hand-held GPS receiver for domestic security.’ Brandishing a notebook-sized electronic device, he continues: ‘This little baby has all the hardware you will ever need to locate, mobilize and coordinate your security team, wherever they may be.’

“Someone in the audience calls out: ‘What if GPS gets cut off?’

“Hansen hesitates, does not look at the person asking the question, then continues: ‘Most European governments have placed restrictions on the sale and use of this little baby, due to the powerful electronics inside. Very robust, very difficult to jam.’

“‘What if the little baby can’t get GPS?’

“‘This little bab…,’ Hansen stops short before finishing the word. ‘This device’s primary mission is to provide positioning support, velocity, navigation and timing to all land-based security operations, including police forces in pursuit of criminals or transporting dangerous prisoners, border guards in anti-smuggling operations and…’

“‘He’s not answering the question,’ someone murmurs. Other members of the audience are now looking at each other. One person says to his neighbor, ‘That’s right. What if GPS stops working?’ Hansen takes a step backwards.”

The pamphlet ends by saying: “The stories presented in this brochure are fictitious. Any resemblance to real events or persons is purely coincidental.”

Follow Peter on Twitter: @pbdes

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.