Brexit in Space: Will the UK have Access to the Galileo Satellite Network?

Main Image Credit Lift-off of Ariane 5 Flight VA240 carrying Galileo satellites 19–22 from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana in December 2017. Courtesy of the European Space Agency

Recent media reports have raised doubts about a post-Brexit Britain’s future access to the EU’s Galileo satellite network. It is imperative this is properly addressed during Brexit negotiations.

The development of the EU’s Galileo network of satellites is the latest in a short but increasingly important, line of Global Satellite Navigation Systems (GNSS) providing precision data from space. However, questions have emerged as to what, if any, access the UK will have to Galileo after Brexit, doubts which highlight both the speculative nature inherent in discussing such issues, but also the essential nature and critical importance of GNSS.

Space-based Position, Navigation and Timing (PNT) signals have become ubiquitous since the first of the US Air Force-operated Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, Navstar-1, was launched in 1978.

In GNSS, PNT is combined with maps and other data, providing users with accurate signals regarding time and location. Perhaps the most obvious examples of GNSS are those regularly used, such as through smartphones and or in cars.

However, the technology is also essential to almost every sector, from precision targeting and command and control for armed forces, to the functioning of rail networks and the global financial system. The critical importance of reliance on these systems has been highlighted in a number of studies into the impacts of a loss of a GNSS capability.

Sovereign GNSS capabilities have become more important, and is a reason the EU has developed the Galileo constellation

The UK, as many other nations, has until now relied primarily on the GPS system. However, GPS is not the only GNSS system available. The first satellite in the Russian GLONASS constellation was launched in 1982, and the Chinese have developed their own system, Beidou. Despite being operated by states, signals from these constellations have been available to users globally (although Beidou has yet to reach worldwide coverage).

Yet these signals are not all equal. The US retains the more accurate and robust signals for its own armed forces, meaning that what is available to other users is not always the best. Reliance on partners for access also means that those who do not actually operate their system remain at a disadvantage.

It is also possible that system operators could degrade or deny the signals on which others rely. For example, if the US felt that information gathered through the GPS system was being used against its interests, or during a time of conflict, it could simply shut down access.

It is for this reason that sovereign GNSS capabilities have become more important, and is one of the reasons the EU has developed the Galileo constellation. Unlike the American and Russian systems, Galileo – scheduled to be fully functional by 2020 – will be under civilian control and provide GNSS users with a more accurate signal than what has previously been available. It will also be compatible with both GPS and GLONASS, enhancing the robustness of global GNSS coverage.

However, it also incorporates the Public Regulated Service (PRS) – an encrypted service environment – that will be available only to EU member states. The PRS is intended to be available to ‘government authorised users’, for example the police and other emergency services, as well as others whose work falls under the security/emergency umbrella.

As a civilian-run programme, militaries are not noted under this category, although the potential benefits to armed forces are obvious. The PRS provides an encrypted signal, ensuring continuity should there be a degradation or denial of another service. It also has anti-jamming and anti-spoofing capabilities to prevent interference in the signal.

Reports suggest that the EU plans to block UK access to the PRS following Brexit, prompting a strong riposte from Britain

The PRS has been enforced in statutory law in Britain, but it is not surprising that there has been some confusion about Britain’s future access to Galileo. Although developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) – an intergovernmental body – the Galileo programme is funded by the EU. Therefore, although Britain’s membership of ESA will not be affected by Brexit, Britain’s continued Galileo participation will require a separate arrangement, given its EU-funded nature.

Reports have emerged suggesting that the EU plans to block UK access to the PRS following Brexit, prompting a strong riposte from British officials as well as industry leaders. Still, and at least according to the European Commission, the problem persists since, as officials put it, sharing sensitive information with a non-EU member state would ‘irretrievably compromise’ the PRS system.

Lack of access to these more robust signals is not the only potential effect of the UK no longer being involved in the Galileo programme. UK-based companies have been heavily involved in the development of Galileo, but the uncertainty surrounding Britain’s future role in the programme has already led to repercussions on the domestic space industry.

The back-up security monitoring centre for the programme has already been relocated to Spain from the UK, with confirmation from a European Commission spokesperson that this was a ‘consequence of the UK withdrawal from the EU’.

Several UK-based companies, including SSTL, QinetiQ and CGI, have been involved in Galileo, but there are fears that they will be frozen out of future contracts, harming not just the companies but also the UK’s ambition to grow its space sector

Should it decide to, the UK would be well placed to build and operate its own system, separate from Galileo. Yet the British government would need to weigh up the costs of doing this against the costs of continued access to Galileo, following further negotiations.

UK-based companies have been involved in Galileo, but there are fears that they will be frozen out of future contracts

Since an independent system would provide the UK with a sovereign and highly robust system, such a move would also potentially increase Britain’s isolation within the ESA community and prevent possible data-sharing with the EU. As a result, going for an independent capability should be regarded as a last-ditch option, rather than the first answer to the fallout from the Brexit process.

A diplomatic – and financial – solution which keeps the UK in the Galileo project post-Brexit can be reached. But, either way, it is important that there is no delay in reaching a decision, for underestimating the critical nature of space-based PNT signals could have significant negative effects on a range of other UK security and defence issues.

Ensuring access to Galileo should, therefore, be central to the already congested list of security negotiations over Britain’s separation from the EU.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.


Ali Stickings

Associate Fellow; Business Manager for Defence Space at Frazer-Nash Consultancy

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