Pity the poor devil who finds himself in the path of a "Taurus" remote-controlled missile. These new European-made cruise missiles have a range of 350 kilometers (218 miles) and are exceedingly precicise -- capable of hitting a target as small as a house at that range.
This only possible because the missiles are able to seek their targets with the aid of GPS satellite navigation. The popular navigation technology, commonly used by drivers to find specific street addresses, also makes it possible to deliver bombs just as precisely to targets like bridges and underground bunkers. But the guidance mechanism is even more accurate in military technology, because the military has reserved particularly precise locating signals for itself.
At a price of just under €1 million apiece, arms producer EADS has high hopes for turning a handsome profit with its "Taurus" missiles. But the company is required to obtain US approval for each and every sale. The US Army, which operates the GPS satellites, has supremacy over all military GPS receivers on earth, including those installed in "Taurus" missiles.
It therefore comes as no surprise that the European arms industry has such high hopes for a satellite navigation system that does not rely on the Americans. The Galileo system, touted as the better GPS for years, is perfectly suited to European purposes, with its 30 satellites serving as domestically-controlled guidance systems with unmatched precision. Galileo, EADS CEO Thomas Enders said recently, must also be made available to the military, partly to improve export sales.
Enders is certainly not the only one to have discovered Galileo's military value. "There will be military users," European Union Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot announced a few weeks ago. The German government is also shifting its position on the system. Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee, a Social Democrat, says that he can imagine Galileo being used by the military "within the scope of normal applications," pointing out that military trucks are also permitted to use highways built with public funds.
All New Weapons Systems Have Satellite Technology
This position is new. For years, the Galileo strategists insisted that the European satellite navigation system would be used purely for civilian purposes -- unlike GPS, which was originally developed for the US military. Nevertheless, the United States eyed the preparations for Galileo with a certain amount of suspicion from the start. Interests within the EU also diverged. Great Britain, for example, is considered a clear opponent of the military use of the technology, while France is not. Defining Galileo as a civilian system for Europe was the only way to convince all parties involved to agree to the project in the first place.
But, as it appears, the old constraints are no longer quite so strict. This comes as no surprise to weapons experts, who have seen a sea change take place in their field within only a few years. "Almost all new weapons systems are now equipped with satellite technology," says Bernd Eissfeller, a professor of navigation at the Bundeswehr University in Munich.
Tanks, bombs and missiles are not the only devices that now depend on precise navigation signals from space. Satellite navigation is also used to guide the unmanned reconnaissance planes, known as drones, in enemy territory from a safe distance, and soldiers are also now carrying handheld navigation devices to guide them in unknown terrain. At the same time the equipment transmits their positions to headquarters, allowing commanders to monitor the movements of their troops in real time.
This has serious consequences for the industry. Advanced weapons technology without satellite receivers is as hard to sell today as a rotary dial telephone. And because navigation is becoming more and more precise, the military's dependency on the orbiting transmitters will only grow, as will the fear of being denied access one day. It is no coincidence that any power seeking global importance wants its own navigation satellites. Russia doubled its budget for its GLONASS navigation system, neglected until recently, and plans to increase the number of satellites in the system from eight to 18. China, for its part, is in a great hurry to launch its own satellite fleet, which it calls Compass, into space. The Chinese satellites apparently contain components made by Swiss firm Temex, which also supplies Galileo with the extremely accurate atomic clocks used in the latest generation of navigation satellites.
With all the new competition, Galileo could very well end up finishing last. The launch, initially planned for 2008, will now probably not take place until 2012 at the earliest. The delay was caused by the need to present Galileo as a project intended for purely commercial purposes. The intention was that the project would pay for itself, with planners promising billions in profits. The beneficiaries would be a consortium of European companies, which, in return, promised to build 26 satellites and assume two-thirds of the startup costs.
This was bound to fail. With Galileo, just as with GPS, the base signal is freely available. Money can only be made with particularly precise and secured services. Glossy brochures explain the system's benefits for business -- for freight forwarding companies, for example, which can use the system to guide their truck fleets around the world more or less down to the last centimeter, or for crop-dusting planes, that can use it to spray pesticides over farmland in the straightest of lines. Galileo even makes it possible to land commercial jets via remote control. Unlike GPS, the quality of the signals used for such purposes is guaranteed, and customers are notified immediately if there is a problem.
A Typically European Compromise
But the bulk of the civilian demand can probably be met with the existing GPS navigation system, although perhaps not with quite the same level of precision. But that too will change. The EU itself has contracted out the construction of a network of 37 ground stations, known as Egnos, which will improve conventional GPS navigation using corrective signals. Egnos is nearing completion and is expected to begin operations next year. When the system is up and running, the accuracy of GPS will increase to one meter (accuracy is currently about 15 meters). This leaves little room for improvement.
Under these circumstances, no one was surprised when Galileo stalled in mid-May. The establishment of the consortium of operators was already a typically European compromise. The EU Commission suddenly decided to bring together the two multinational conglomerates that were vying for the business, a miracle brought about by political pressure from key member states. Suddenly dozens of companies found themselves forced to work together in a consortium, including arms manufacturers EADS and Thales, as well as T-Systems, a subsidiary of German telecommunications giant Deutsche Telekom. It wasn't until later that the EU bureaucrats realized that they would soon be dealing with a self-created monopoly.
National interests also came into play, and proved to be an obstacle. When a dispute erupted over the location of the control center, the solution was to pick three: one near Munich, one in Italy and one in Spain.
The Galileo project made little headway for years. In the end, the consortium argued with the EU Commission over liability issues. If there had been even the slightest prospect of fat profits, such disagreements would likely have been easier to overcome.
Military Interest Could Help Pay for Galileo
In mid-May, Transport Commissioner Barrot was forced to declare the marriage of convenience between politics and business a failure. The EU Commission now plans to assume full control over the construction of Galileo. Selected companies will only become involved as operations are gradually transferred to them.
The EU transport ministers are meeting this Thursday to negotiate where the project goes from here. It is seen as likely that the European Space Agency (ESA) will assume the leading role at Galileo. It could subcontract the necessary technology and supervise the development of the infrastructure.
The satellites themselves are not that difficult to produce. The Swiss clocks require the most sophistication, because they are required to set the time signal at an unimaginable degree of precision. The devices lose no more than one second every three million years.
European taxpayers will now have to provide the necessary funding. The EU Commission predicts a price tag of €10 billion between now and 2030. This is such a significant sum that tapping into defense budgets suddenly becomes an option.
The military itself has kept a low profile. Officials say that the Bundeswehr is satisfied the GPS system, which it shares with the United States under the auspices of NATO. Nevertheless, the German defense ministry has not ruled out the possibility of using Galileo for military purposes. "We will look into it," says a spokesman, "as soon as the underlying conditions for Galileo have been clarified."
From a military standpoint, one can never have enough satellites. A combination of Galileo and GPS would provide the best navigation, opening up all sorts of new options for waging war. In an extensive analysis, US military consultants James Hasik and Michael Rip conclude that improved navigation can offer decisive advantages, especially in urban areas. GPS alone is not particularly accurate in cities. During the Iraq war, soldiers often complained about breakdowns. The navigation signal was easily lost in the narrow streets of Iraqi cities, a problem caused by the navigation technology itself, which requires an undistorted connection to at least four satellites. But in a dense urban environment, the walls of buildings often get in the way of signals.
Thirty GPS satellites currently orbit the earth. If the 30 satellites planned for Galileo are added, walls would hardly present a problem anymore. "We now get a reliable GPS signal in only about half of the space in urban areas," says Hasik. "Coverage would increase to 95 percent with Galileo."
Navigation would also become more precise. As a result, urban combat -- which is gruelling and often associated with high casualties -- could lose some of its horror. Air support is currently difficult: Because GPS is too imprecise, pilots are forced to fly within visual range, putting themselves in danger. And dense cloud cover makes such operations altogether impossible. Galileo, on the other hand, would allow for targeted air strikes from far away and in any kind of weather, says Hasik. The strikes could be so precise that, ideally, there would be no collateral damage to one's own troops or to civilians.
Many dangerous tasks could also be transferred to machines. Hasik and Rip envision, for example, unmanned trucks providing supplies to troops on the battlefield. Galileo would make it possible to guide the trucks precisely enough so that they would be virtually guaranteed to reach their destinations.
Precise guidance signals can also be used with all kinds of robots. The US Army is currently testing 55 small drones made by Honeywell. The tiny, agile aircraft are small enough to fit into a backpack. When needed, soldiers would dispatch the drones up into the air on reconnaissance flights. The drones could then determine objects hidden behind hills or in buildings. The precise navigation data Galileo would provide would even allow the drones to fly towards a suspicious window in a multistory building.
All of this makes it seem all the more puzzling to Hasik that Galileo was so vehemently sold as purely civilian technology in Europe. "If you build a lighthouse, you can hardly claim that it's only good for commercial ships," says Hasik. "Naturally navigation systems are good for both."
Europe Needs its Own Satellites
A combination of GPS and Galileo would have its attractions for the United States. It would guarantee a tremendous technological advantage that would also extend to urban areas. The enemy would only have access to the publicly accessible signal, which is far less accurate and not protected against interference. What is more, special ground-based transmitters can also render it unusable within a certain range.
On the other hand, Galileo represents the loss of an important monopoly for the United States, which currently has complete control over the more precise, non-public GPS signal. The signal is encoded, so that access is only provided to those given the correct codes. Until now, US allies have generally been provided with codes valid for one year at a time.
But that could soon change. The Americans are developing a technology known as OTAR (Over-the-Air Rekeying) which will enable them to manipulate individual military GPS receivers using wireless signals. This would make it possible to change the codes of the devices at any time during operation. Certain groups of receivers -- even entire countries -- could be locked out with a few keystrokes.
But this control over codes will lose some of its value once Galileo is up and running, placing Europeans in a position to grant access to their own system. It isn't exactly comforting to the United States that other countries have expressed interest in participating in Galileo's development, including South Korea, India and Ukraine, and even China and Saudi Arabia.
Building a Fail-Safe Global System
Navigation technology, almost unnoticed until now, has become a commodity that is eyed suspiciously as long as it belongs to someone else. Suddenly control, access and exclusion become hot-button issues.
The civilian, publicly accessible part of GPS still belongs to the realm of the common good and global consensus. It's likely to remain that way, because the global economy is already so heavily dependent on the positioning satellites. The satellites are even critical to telecommunications. Wireless networks, for example, are kept in synch by using the precise GPS time signal.
This is why experts are convinced that the United States will never shut down its public GPS. It has not done so over the course of 12 years and many wars, and for good reason: Shutting down GPS would also disable the US economy. In other words, unless the apocalypse is around the corner, GPS is here to stay.
But it is precisely this nightmare scenario that is still used as the main argument in favor of Galileo. Supporters say that Europe needs its own satellites because GPS cannot be relied on in the long term. But this argument becomes even less credible with each new squadron of satellites soon to orbit the earth.
"Technically speaking, building receivers that can understand the signals coming from all positioning satellites isn't a problem," says navigation expert Eissfeller. Once that happens, a small receiver box will be all it will take to pick up signals from GLONASS, Compass, GPS, Galileo and whatever other systems may exist one day. And it will be a fail-proof global system, because signals will always be coming from one satellite or another.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan