ourEconomy: Opinion

Can Brexit Britain go it alone in space?

Britain’s botched attempt to launch its own satellite navigation system highlights the challenges middle-sized countries face competing in space.

Bleddyn Bowen
16 March 2020
Lewis Whyld/PA Archive/PA Images

In 2018, British companies discovered that they could no longer get contract work to develop some of the most sensitive parts of the EU’s flagship space project. Hailed as Europe’s answer to the American Global Positioning System (GPS) and expected to launch fully in 2020, the EU’s Galileo global navigation satellite system (GNSS) became the latest victim of Britain’s vote to leave the EU.

The UK responded by declaring its intention to seek its own ‘sovereign’ alternative to Galileo. This resulted in a feasibility study that began in late 2018 and was due to be released in March 2020, at a cost of £92m. The Financial Times reported in early March that an internal review at the Cabinet Office had delayed the release of this feasibility study until the autumn, citing concerns over the projected spiralling costs of the programme and doubts over whether Britain has the actual capacity to pull such a project off.

The decision to ‘build our own’ was born of the political vanity of the May Government in 2018, due in no small part to the then Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson’s desire to make this a front page news story. It was an announcement made in the heat of the moment in 2018, when the top decision-makers did not really understand what it was they were advocating – in particular its cost, scale, development time, and complexity.

It appears that enough people in Cabinet and other departments in Whitehall have now realised how much a UK GNSS would cost to build and run, how little capability it would add, and its vast opportunity cost. The programme would be a colossal waste of effort – regardless of one’s position on Brexit.

Inside or outside the EU, it has little reasonable grounds for support.

What is GNSS technology?

Global navigation satellite system (GNSS) constellations usually consist of around 25-30 satellites orbiting around Earth at altitudes of 20,000-24,000km. They provide position, navigation, and timing signals for military, commercial, and civil infrastructure uses. They allow military units to know where they are, and to bomb targets with centimetre accuracy. They provide a universal time for financial transactions, allow our civilian devices to know where they are, and help us get to where we’re going. They help machines automate all sort of processes, from farming to drone warfare that rely position data without human inputs. They also enable location-based ‘precision’ dating applications, though perhaps with less accuracy, reliability, and success than precision guided munitions.

America pioneered the technology with its GPS, and Russia then followed with GLONASS. In 2020, the EU’s Galileo and China’s Beidou will also become fully operational. These projects take decades and billions of dollars to build and run. They are some of the most complicated and expensive single systems modern space powers can build. Brexit means that Britain can no longer get the contracts to build parts of the Galileo system (although using it is another matter, as discussed below).

How much would it cost?

The sheer cost of the UK developing its own programme is arguably the most compelling argument against it. The system is projected by the UK Government to cost around £5bn. The EU and the US spend around £1bn each on maintaining their systems once built. This also does not include modernisation and updates for successive generations. Simply put: a UK GNSS will be a massive project. Britain’s nuclear weapon system – the Trident missile and V-class submarines – cost around £1bn to run. It is more expensive than Skynet – Britain’s secure military and intelligence communications satellite constellation of seven satellites. It is reputed that the latest generation cost around £4bn to build, but it provides a unique capability in the form of secure communications for the British state, free from prying eyes, including the Americans. The Royal Navy’s current frigate acquisition programme costs around £8bn, working out to around £1bn per ship.

There is already a funding ‘black hole’ in the Ministry of Defence’s acquisition programme of £3bn or so. The entire UK Space Agency’s budget is around £400m, which funds UK space science and contributions to the European Space Agency.

What capability would it add?

Compounding the cost issue is the fact that Britain’s exit from the Galileo system does not affect British military capabilities.

GNSS provide two sets of signals. One is for military users which is very precise, hard to jam, and encrypted to authorised users only. This is known as P/Y Code and M-Code in the American GPS, and Public Regulated Service (PRS) in Galileo. The second signal is for civilian and commercial uses that most of us use every day. This signal is weaker, easier to jam, unencrypted, and far less precise (other technologies are used to boost the accuracy of civilian signals).

Britain will continue to have access to military-grade GNSS signals through the Americans. The US GPS was always going to be the GNSS provider of choice for the Ministry of Defence, with Galileo’s PRS as a reliable backup should the worst happen with GPS’ M-Code. What’s more, the EU has specifically said on many occasions that it is open to negotiate Britain’s access to use the PRS element of Galileo (our civilian and commercial sector will be able to use civilian Galileo signals regardless). The US and Norway have already signalled their intent to negotiate with the EU on PRS access – it’s seen as a backup to GPS’ military functions. The EU has an interest in ensuring the US, Norway, and the UK can access the PRS signals of Galileo.

The UK is therefore looking at spending £5bn on a system that triplicates existing capabilities and services that we can access. What’s more, arguments over sovereignty fall flat because it is inconceivable that the US will switch off GPS to its allies (and whether it could actually do so), and Britain will have to pay other states or foreign companies to launch its satellites into space. They are too big and inefficient to be launched from a proposed UK spaceport.

Does Britain have the expertise?

Even if the money was to be allocated, the UK space sector will struggle to provide the expertise overnight. Some British companies have a lot of experience in navigation technology, and were awarded about 15% of the work for Galileo. But that means 85% of the work was not done in the UK. Satellite operations and satellite ‘bus’ design and manufacturing are lacking in the UK space sector. GNSS satellites are bigger than the small satellites UK engineers are used to. The Ministry of Defence has seemingly stopped its attempt to bring the next generation of Skynet satellite operations back in-house, leaving it outsourced to a multinational European aerospace company.

If the Ministry of Defence cannot muster the personnel to control a constellation of seven communications satellites, how will they manage to recruit enough skilled staff to manage a constellation of over two-dozen more complex satellites? This is not to say it’s impossible, but it would take a huge amount of long-term investment in niche skill areas that are already competitive on the global labour market, and the pressures on science and engineering skills is widespread across the UK, not just in space.

What is the opportunity cost?

Many other areas in UK space could do with investments measuring tens of millions of pounds. For example, British capabilities in space-based imagery, reconnaissance, and surveillance can tap into existing strengths in the commercial space sector, and can be done in small satellites which may create demand for a UK small satellite spaceport. Space radar and observation sites – or Space Situational Awareness (SSA) technologies and centres – are worth considering because the current state of knowledge of orbital traffic is quite poor outside of the US military. If an international Space Traffic Management regime is to come about in future, SSA data will be the currency of influence in the governance of that system.

Ground based resiliency systems for critical infrastructure may also be worth looking into, as satellite systems are not the most robust at all times. Cheaper technologies can provide some ground-based alternatives and backup systems for civil infrastructure, like the recently decommissioned eLoran system in the UK. For a fraction of £5bn, the UK could unilaterally build itself a small satellite launch site. At present the UK has spent less on this than on the £92m ‘feasibility study’. The opportunity costs are rather stark given the cost of the proposed GNSS, and they are even starker if we start looking at the other budgets across the UK that could do with a boost, not least the Ministry of Defence’s own acquisitions budget.

The international context of spacepower

Is the Cabinet Office’s decision to delay the release of the feasibility study a sign that it is dawning on the UK that only big countries or coalitions can do projects in space, after decades of big investment? The EU is now a significant space power, demonstrated by its flagship space projects that only Russia, the US and China can also build on a unilateral basis. The EU is overshadowing NATO as a primary vehicle for European-level security and military grade space development.

India is only now transitioning towards making its military dependent on its own Navigate with Indian Constellation (NAVIC) regional navigation system, which will cover South Asia only, years after building its GPS overlay for civilian and infrastructure purposes and after becoming a partner in Russia's GLONASS, which currently provides India’s military-grade GNSS services. Japan is still inching its way along with its Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS) by planning a constellation of four satellites to cover East Asia and the western Pacific, up from its original one satellite. This shows how smaller space powers are still pacing themselves after years of experience in regional navigation systems. The EU started here too with EGNOS, the predecessor to Galileo.

Space is hard, expensive, and important for infrastructure development – which is an an important reason why Europe has succeeded there. Britain is finding out that many things are beyond the capacities of middle-sized states unless they invest in targeted areas for decades and cooperate with other states.

Astropolitics, it seems, is just the continuation of terran politics.

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