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Galileo satellite illustration
Galileo (above) is rooted in large part on European prestige, while its Chinese competitor, Compass, is based more on assuring Chinese military advantage. (credit: ESA)

China and Galileo, continued

The article last month on Galileo and the Chinese (“Galileo gets a Chinese overlay”, The Space Review, July 31, 2006) has certainly struck some raw nerves. The effort that the Europeans have so far put into Galileo has produced mostly headaches and bad blood. Other European programs that could be truly useful, such as Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES), are being starved of funds while Galileo is subject to skepticism within Europe and hostility outside the EU.

For the Chinese, Galileo is no longer a partner, but instead more of a competitor.

Ryan Caron’s letter (“Letter: Galileo and Compass”, The Space Review, August 7, 2006) was one of the more moderate replies. Unfortunately, he makes a number of claims about the article that are questionable. For example, the public signals that Galileo will provide will not be fully interoperable with GPS. As Caron explains elsewhere in his letter the revenue model for Galileo is “not as strong as it once was,” which is a polite way of putting it. In fact, the consortium will have to put as many signals as they can behind encrypted walls in order to generate anywhere near the cash flow they need to make this a profitable venture. By the time they finish extracting the maximum they can from their system there will be precious little “free service” to share.

For the Chinese, Galileo is no longer a partner, but instead more of a competitor. They extracted as much as they reasonably could have out of their relationship with the Europeans over this and now have decided to strike out on their own. Whether they build a full-scale worldwide system or just a regional one may not be relevant to those who are trying to figure out a way to make the European system profitable. The Asian market for ultra-precise positioning services was, and may still be, their greatest source of revenue. However, if the nations over there introduce nationally-controlled differential GPS systems, they may find they can dispense with Galileo’s services. Some of the smaller states may also find that buying a backup differential Compass system may be a prudent investment, both technically and politically.

China may build an initial version of Compass for regional use while developing a future global system. China’s strategic interests in Africa would indicate that in the future they will want to try and dominate the shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean. By around the year 2020, if China’s appetite for raw materials continues to grow as fast as it has over the past ten years, it will naturally want to be able to project power at least as far west as the coast of Mozambique. Interestingly, this is the furthest point reached by China’s great exploration fleets of the 15th century.

Twenty or thirty years from now China’s strategic priorities will probably have changed, but , as with America’s GPS, the usefulness of a nationally-controlled satellite navigation system will remain. Compass may also serve as a platform for purposes beyond navigation, such as detecting nuclear explosions or for electronic or signal intelligence. Some experts believe that the Compass satellites will have so much extra power onboard, they could be used as space-based jammers. The targets might include GPS and Galileo signals, or even those from Russia’s GLONASS. Aside from its reconnaissance satellites, Compass could be China’s most important military space asset in fifteen or twenty years.

China was invited into Galileo partly as a way to snub the US and partly because the Europeans seem to believe that the more “international” a project is the better chance it has of not being canceled. France’s Hermes spaceplane project, for example, was unable to get off the drawing board because the other European states refused to finance it. While other worthy European space efforts such as Aurora and GMES are still alive, compared to Galileo, they are in deep financial trouble. Today, internationalizing a program is no guarantee of success.

When it comes to satellite navigation positioning and timing systems, though, the competition can hardly be described as capitalistic. In fact, it’s not socialist or mercantilist either.

While Caron may be right that China has purchased relatively old-fashioned atomic rubidium clocks for the early versions of Compass, there is no reason to believe that they will not want to improve their system by buying or building hydrogen masers. It is hard to know just how advanced China’s space technology is at this point. They have undoubtedly mastered the basics and have access to enough sophisticated technology to keep up their current position, but will they be able to improve their relative standing? To put it another way, suppose that, today. the US is ten years ahead of China in overall space technology. Ten years from now will China have caught up to where the US is now, or will they be only five years or less behind where America will be in 2016?

This is the question those who want to reform the US export control system have to keep asking themselves: will the changes they suggest make it harder of easier for the US to maintain its lead? The facts of economic life would tend to support those who want to reform the ITAR system; after all, the more profitable the US space industry is the more incentive and wherewithal they will have to invest in future products that, in turn, will maintain the nation’s technological edge. The more time and effort the industry has to spend on compliance and on legal issues, the less they will have to spend on research and development. Yet a balance must be maintained, because if the industry makes it too easy for China or other potential adversaries to gain access to militarily-relevant technologies, then the pressure for more restriction will intensify.

Capitalist competition is undoubtedly a good way to insure that the public gets a chance to procure the best goods and services at the lowest prices. When it comes to satellite navigation positioning and timing systems, though, the competition can hardly be described as capitalistic. In fact, it’s not socialist or mercantilist either: the current situation is all about military advantage and prestige. For Galileo it’s more about European prestige, and in the case of Compass it’s more about China’s desire for military advantage. From their points of view both are legitimate desires, but to be honest, any commercial advantages gained either by Europe or China will likely be more in the nature of taxes or tolls than a profit gained from selling something that the public actually wants to buy.