The UK’s Global Navigation Satellite System vital to the nations interests is being thrown into doubt by Whitehall inertia
LONDON, UK / ACCESSWIRE / March 12, 2020 / Of the unexpected consequences of Brexit, being forced out of Galileo the European Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) is perhaps the one with the greatest potential to cause catastrophic problems for Britain’s security, military, political, commercial and economic interests, let alone the effect on day-to-day life for the general public.
Until leaving the EU Britain had been the leader in the Galileo project, a vital competitor to the US GPS and Russian GLONASS systems. Now we are in the unenviable position of either having to pay our way to be allowed to use one of these systems, or to take control of our own destiny by creating the UK GNSS.
Up until a few weeks ago we were forging ahead with the latter option. In 2018 a feasibility study was announced by then Prime Minister Theresa May while new PM Boris Johnson has reiterated his support for the project time after time, announcing it in the Queens Speech in December 2019 and reportedly giving it his full backing in Cabinet as recently as 28th February.
But why do we need UK GNSS at all? I’d like to say its simple but in fact its very complex, which is perhaps one of the reasons that Whitehall seems to be running scared right now.
Access to GNSS signals is vital for modern economies and the UK’s reliance on it continues to grow as new applications are developed. The UK Governments own Blackett Review in 2018 identified a reliance on GNSS across critical national infrastructure including time-location based systems, communications and military requirements for location, surveillance and weapons delivery.
The overall effect of the loss of GNSS timing signals on the UK infrastructure, such as ATM machines, power and utilities distribution, cargo handling, timing for various communication systems, transport and rail systems has been estimated at £1b per day. In fact 11% of the UK’s GDP is directly supported by satellite navigation systems.
Any loss, or even restriction, of GNSS services to the UK would be disastrous for the economy but also for national security. The UK military has a critical requirement to access an encrypted system. It can access GPS via a NATO agreement and may able to buy into Galileo but crucially it would not control the encryption codes, leaving the defence of the country open to the political will of either the US or French governments.
At a time when the UK needs to step up and assert its place on the global stage being at the behest of a foreign government for vital defence requirements seems to fly in the face of our current reality. There is no doubt that a UK GNSS would eliminate any political risk and reduce the military risk.
With all this in mind the Government elected in December has been understandably supportive of the UK GNSS project, identifying three key policy aims for it:
Deliver a new, UK-controlled space capability that will strengthen national resilience and provide secure and assured position, navigation and timing services anywhere in the world to support a wide range of UK strategic objectives (e.g. humanitarian aid missions, trade deals).
Demonstrate the UK’s role as a major global actor with global reach and influence, boost our standing as a credible international partner for allies, and affirm the UK’s status as a Tier 1 military power.
Boost UK prosperity by providing new high-tech economic opportunities in the UK space sector, and stimulating innovation in sectors such as security, CNI and defence which rely on space-based position, navigation and timing services.
So why now are various departments involved, (BEIS, MOD and Cabinet Office) seemingly either at loggerheads or running scared and trying to back away from investing in a crucial piece of Britain’s infrastructure?
Can it be the cost? A budget of £5bn has been identified; £3bn to build and launch 24 satellites by 2025 and a further £2bn to operate the system for a further five years. Compared to a potential loss of £1bn per day it seems a tiny price to pay. And putting it in context with the infrastructure spend on HS2 for example, now estimated at well over £100bn or Crossrail at over £18bn, it looks like incredibly good value for money.
It’s not the technology, the UK was at the forefront of Galileo and has 50 leading edge companies ready to start work including Inmarsat, CGI, SSTL and Airbus.
Indeed, industry and the UK Space Agency have already been working closely with the MOD on a potential design that would be significantly less complex than Galileo. The UK GNSS system is planned to have 24 satellites in Medium Earth Orbit to provide an open navigation and timing service as well as an encrypted position and time service designed for public service authorities or the military.
Does the sudden reluctance to take the next step therefore come down to either a lack of confidence within the Cabinet Office or the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, in their capability to deliver a complex project?
Or is the issue one of traditional civil service inertia, being unwilling to step away from the status quo that would see the UK sign up to whatever the Americans thought best for us. After all it could be a bargaining chip in forthcoming trade talks.
The Cabinet Secretary has recently talked about a cheaper alternative to UK GNSS, but no such alternative exists. It is just a delaying tactic introducing chaos with proposals and counter proposals for a variety of systems that have previously been discarded as not meeting user requirements for a global robust system.
We are at a crucial time for the future of the UK as an economy and as a major player on the global stage. We cannot afford to retreat into a bunker mentality reliant on other nations to supply us with vital technology which could be denied to us at any time.
UK GNSS is a stepping-stone enabling a robust future for Britain, it ensures our hands and our actions for both business and the military are not tied to a foreign power. UK GNSS is at a vital stage, where delay by Whitehall could kill the project, however to give the country the freedom of action it has been looking for during the whole Brexit project it is vital for the nation that it go ahead.
Currently the only thing stopping the UK Space Agency signing contracts due to start in April with British businesses to forge ahead with the project is the Cabinet Office. The Prime Minister therefore needs to stand behind British industry, be seen to be protecting the future of the economy and defence, create some certainty and throw his full weight behind UK GNSS, approving the project without delay.
As Boris lets get it done….
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SOURCE: Clive Hemsley
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