One critic called it "the Common Agricultural Policy of the sky," a reference to the European Union's expensive and wasteful farm support program, but the Galileo Project has been launched at last. On December 28 a Russian rocket boosted the Giove-A satellite into orbit from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
The small British-built satellite is the first of two designed to test the orbital components of the new European satellite navigation system. Another will follow early in 2006, and once the testing is complete the launches of operational satellites will come every couple of months until all 30 of them are in orbit by the end of 2010. It is being touted as a technically superior commercial rival to the quarter-century-old US Global Positioning System - but no bank in the world would lend the Galileo Project money if it were truly a commercial venture.
Talk to the EU's public relations people, and they will rhapsodize about the technological beauties of the system. Galileo's rubidium-based atomic clocks, the heart of the system, are 10 times as precise as the ones in the American GPS system, and will give positions accurately to within one metre (one yard) or less. Galileo will give a faster fix, and will penetrate inside buildings, into city centers, under trees - all places where GPS is currently unreliable. But the truth is that Galileo will not be technologically superior for long, and it is a lot more expensive than just sticking with GPS.
There are no reliable estimates of the final cost of getting the Galileo system up and running: the working figure is 3.4 billion euros ($4 billion), but it could end up being much more. The projected revenues are even hazier, since they assume that Galileo's increased accuracy will lure large numbers of users away from the American GPS system, which is freely available to anyone - but the forthcoming upgrade of the GPS network should make it even more accurate than Galileo within the next 10 years.
Few of Galileo's private investors would be risking their money if the EU's prestige and its huge resources were not also committed to the project.
THE REAL motives for the Galileo Project are not commercial or even political (although it does provide another pretext for subsidizing Europe's space-oriented industries). It is fundamentally a strategic project, aimed at ensuring that the EU will have guaranteed access to satellite-nav information no matter what happens politically in the world in the next 30 or 40 years. Just as the Russians could have relied on receivers for the freely available GPS but put up their own Glonass system instead, so the Europeans do not want to be utterly dependent on Washington's good will.
GPS was originally built with US taxpayers' money as an entirely military system. Its main purpose, early on, was to provide accurate positioning data to American nuclear delivery vehicles, but US authorities quickly realized that it was also a superb tool for enhancing the country's diplomatic clout abroad and the military services' public image at home. They let private companies produce receivers that enabled civilians to use the satellite data (with the accuracy deliberately degraded so it was less useful to other military forces), and transformed the world's navigation industry.
The major drawback of the free and universally available GPS system is that it comes with no guarantees whatsoever. At any time the United States government can choose to degrade the positioning data available to civil users, or even to switch the system off. It is unlikely to do such a thing except in a grave emergency, but remote contingencies are what strategic planning is all about. If, for example, there were to be a Chinese-US military confrontation in the Taiwan Strait 10 years from now, and the US decided to switch the publicly available GPS service off in case Chinese cruise missiles used it, air traffic systems all over Asia would collapse.
It was this sort of consideration that convinced the old Soviet Union to go ahead with the rival Glonass system, and similar motives drive the EU's determination to press ahead with Galileo now. Once Galileo is operational, the US will lose a valuable diplomatic lever that it has quietly enjoyed for the past three decades, so the Bush administration mounted a major diplomatic campaign in 2004 to persuade the EU to drop the project. It was particularly insistent that Galileo's positioning data not be made available to China, which it sees as its emerging strategic rival.
Given the EU's perception that Galileo is a key element in assuring its own long-term strategic independence, the American diplomatic offensive was bound to fail. So the US has now decided to make the best of the situation, and agreed to make the two sat-nav systems compatible and "interoperable." In other words, future receivers will be able to get a fix using satellites from either system.
Of course, that means that many users will use the free GPS system for most purposes, and only switch to the fee-based Galileo system when greater accuracy is required. A cynic might conclude that this is a cunning American strategy to ensure that the Galileo system never becomes commercially self-supporting, but the EU could not possibly refuse such a generous and reasonable proposal, so it signed. And that is how the game is played these days.
The writer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.