- The Washington Times - Friday, January 6, 2006

The launch last month of the first of Europe’s Galileo system of navigational satellites marks the beginning of an end run around American dominance of space-based navigation.

The U.S. system, called GPS (for Global Positioning System) is now the world’s standard, though Russia’s Global Navigation Satellite System is used by some. Galileo will be both more accurate and wider in its coverage than GPS.

The basic idea of satellite navigation is simple enough. A constellation of satellites circles the Earth, each of them emitting radio signals. By calculating the distances to several of them, a receiver on the Earth can calculate its geographical position to within 15 feet in the case of GPS, though Galileo will be accurate to within a yard.

Today’s GPS was launched by the Pentagon for military purposes. Therein lies the problem. Though it is a military innovation, as was the Internet, GPS has caught on with the civilian and international world.

Accuracy and ease of use make the units highly desirable for navigation of ships, aircraft and private boats, for trucking companies that want to keep track of cargos, and for backpackers.

The Pentagon, of course, regards GPS as a military tool. It has therefore limited its accuracy for civilian use, citing concern that terrorists might use it for guiding missiles to targets. Further, the Pentagon also can simply turn GPS off if it seems militarily desirable to do so.

And so a conflict has arisen between military and civilian needs. Satellite positioning has become so important to civilian business that much of the world, to include Europe, is unwilling to leave control in the hands of the Pentagon. Thus countries as diverse as Ukraine, Israel and China are cooperating with the European Space Agency (ESA) to build Galileo.

The desire to avoid U.S. control is explicit. TechNewsWorld.com quotes Franco Bonacina, a spokesman for the ESA, as saying, “If the Americans want to scramble GPS, they can do it whenever they want. Whereas our system is a civilian-based system run by a civilian authority and would be completely autonomous.”

Now, is there actually any danger that terrorists could use a GPS system? In principle, yes. For example, a company called Aerosonde.com makes small, unmanned, comparatively cheap GPS-guided aircraft for scientific purposes. All by themselves, these craft can fly long distances to precise locations, gather data and return.

It is not hard to imagine nefarious uses for larger craft with similar guidance. On the other hand, turning the system off would be useful against terrorists only if you knew in advance when they were going to attack. As the world’s dependence on satellite positioning grows, loss of service would have increasingly grave effects.

When Galileo becomes operational in 2010, presumably it will become the world standard. Superior accuracy will make it desirable for such things as automobile navigation systems, and businesses such as airlines won’t want to take even the theoretical risk that the Pentagon might shut it down. At that point, the question will be entirely out of U.S. hands.

Does it matter to the United States who manages such a globally important high-tech service? Maybe not … but it makes me uneasy to see it go. With Galileo in place, the Pentagon’s policy will be irrelevant to terrorism anyway.

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