We Asked an Actual Expert if it Would Be Crazy for Britain to Build its Own Satellite Navigation System

By James O Malley on at

There’s a weird thing that happens when people start to believe in something crazy: the crazy often spills over into other things. That’s why there’s an overlap between people who believe in horoscopes and people who believe that homeopathy is anything more that sugar pills. And that’s why people who believe in Brexit also seem to believe that Britain should build its own GPS-style satellite navigation system after we get kicked out of the existing shared European Galileo project because of Brexit.

According to The Telegraph, defence secretary Gavin Williamson has revealed that work has already begun on the 100% British alternative, in a move that could cost us £3bn. It isn’t clear at the moment whether a new British system would use Ordnance Survey grid references rather than longitude and latitude, or if the system would open late on Sundays (as that’s the British way), but in any case, the idea of doing our thing strikes us as completely barking mad.

But rather than rely our own lay-person reckonings, we here at Gizmodo UK have not, as Michael Gove believes, had enough of experts. So we asked Alexandra Stickings, who is a national security and resilience research analyst at the Defence Think Tank RUSI to give us her better informed take on what the hell is going on - and whether a British Positioning System is at all remotely plausible.

Giz: Why was Britain involved in Galileo in the first place? What are the benefits of Britain/Europe having its own GPS-style system that is independent of America?

Alexandra: Although the UK was initially opposed to Galileo, it became involved both as an EU member state and as a member of the European Space Agency. It has so far funded 12% of the programme.

The main benefit to the EU having its own Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) is assurance of access – relying on others, such as the US for GPS or Russia for GLONASS, means that Britain/Europe could see the signal they receive degraded or denied. Also, a critical aspect of Galileo is the Public Regulated Service (PRS), an encrypted signal available to government authorised users. As well as its accuracy, it has anti-jamming and anti-spoofing capabilities, and is therefore of great benefit both for the military and other aspects of security.

Giz: How feasible do you think it would be for Britain to develop its own alternative on its own?

Alexandra: Britain does have the expertise to develop its own system. However, GNSS systems have historically been met with delays and spiralling costs. It would be a number of years before the UK was at the point where it would be able to have a system in orbit.

There is also the issue of launching the satellites. Galileo satellites are launched from ESA’s site in French Guiana, which being close to the Equator, is well sited for launching large payloads. Although the UK is going through the process of developing its own launch site, it would not be suitable, and Britain would therefore need to look for alternative launch providers.

Giz: Would Galileo be hurt by Britain pulling out? Is it in the rest of the EU/ESA's interest to keep Britain involved? Security has long be touted as our supposed trump card in Brexit negotiations after all.

Alexandra: Because the Galileo system is not yet complete, no longer involving UK firms in the final stages could cause some delays.

It is in the EU’s interest for Britain to remain involved, particularly regarding access to the PRS. If the EU still sees the UK as an important partner in security following Brexit, Britain’s access to the PRS is essential.

The EU/ESA relationship is somewhat complicated. Galileo is EU-funded, but managed by ESA. The European Space Industrial Policy, of which the UK is a signatory, benefits EU Member States within ESA for EU-funded work. As ESA is not an EU body, the UK will remain a member, but its relationships within the organisation could become strained.

Giz: So should Britain do its own thing? Should we develop our own satellites that will make our mapping apps play God Save The Queen when we reach our destinations?

Alexandra: I do not think Britain should develop its own system. Considering the money that has already been spent and the benefits that Galileo brings, the UK should continue to negotiate for continued involvement in and access to the project.

Also, going it alone could damage the UK space industry. The UK Space Agency has a goal of the UK having 10% of the global space industry by 2030. This can only be more difficult to achieve if the UK potentially damages its relationships within ESA by doing its own thing.

Giz: The figure of £3bn is being talked about as the cost of our own system. If we were to imagine a world where we could remain in Galileo, but still had £3bn to spend on space tech, how do you think it should be spent?

Alexandra: There are a number of gaps within British space capability where this money could be better spent. This includes surveillance and earth observation satellites, both of which our space industry is well placed to deliver. Developing its own GNSS system is replicating already existing projects and will compete with them, whereas surveillance and EO satellites would be of great benefit.

Giz: Finally, what do you think will happen? What is more likely: Britain building its own system, or some sort of deal being done to enable Britain to continue participating in Galileo?

Alexandra: I think (or rather am hopeful…) that a deal regarding Galileo will be reached within the wider security discussions surrounding Brexit. I see the statements of Britain building its own system as more of a threat to the EU. In my opinion it should be a last-ditch option rather than something the UK should be aiming to do.