The GPS (Global Positioning System), which had its first launch in 1978, has entered daily speech as a term. Yet few have heard of Galileo, the EU’s state-of-the-art next-generation Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), and even fewer are aware of its transatlantic significance.
Galileo, named after the Italian astronomer of the 16th CE, is expected to reach full operational capacity by the end of 2020, something that will require the launching and synchronization of 30 satellites — eight more than currently deployed. Galileo will be extremely accurate: it will provide accuracy of one meter and one centimeter for public and encrypted uses respectively. This is five times more accurate for public applications and 30 times more accurate for encrypted ones than the GPS is. Yet it is not just Galileo’s accuracy that makes it an attention-worthy system.
First, Galileo is the only GNSS that is not operated by the military as are the other three GNSSs: the American GPS, the Russian GLONASS, and the Chinese Beidou. On the contrary, its operators are the European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Global Navigation Systems Agency, an EU agency specifically set up for the purpose.
Second, it is an illustration of the EU’s desire to achieve, in certain areas, strategic autonomy. Before Galileo, the EU countries essentially relied on GPS. Yet, since the GPS is operated by the Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) it can be turned off at will should the U.S. desire — or should its satellites be targeted by an adversary. With Galileo in operation the EU will insulate itself from the possibility of being deprived of a GNSS should GPS go offline.
Third, Galileo will be available to any individual, organization, or country. It will, in effect, be a neutral technology as the EU has stated. This availability, combined with the fact that Galileo initially used the same signal frequency as the GPS, raised serious concerns in the U.S.
In the case of a conflict, an adversary could use the highly accurate Galileo signal to his advantage. Additionally, should the U.S. have wanted to take the Galileo system down it would inevitably have to disable GPS too, since the two systems would use the same frequency. This fear was compounded by the fact that China was set out to be among the original funders of Galileo.
Fortunately for the U.S., its diplomacy prevailed in convincing the Europeans to change the signal frequency of Galileo. Therefore, in the event of a conflict, either of the two systems can be turned or brought down without affecting the operation of the other system. Furthermore, the European allies and the U.S. agreed to promote the combined use of the two GNSSs. Fortuitously, China also withdrew its intention to contribute to the project’s financing.
As such, Galileo exemplifies an area wherein the two transatlantic parties are cognizant and sensitive to each other’s interests (strategic autonomy and security concerns), and reached a mutually beneficial concession through diplomacy. It can, therefore, serve as an example for the other issues currently plaguing the transatlantic relationship.