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Galileo in Crisis

Alok Rashmi Mukhopadhyay was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • May 16, 2007

    In October 2006, when India decided to pull out of the ambitious Galileo project, a global navigation system jointly developed by the European Commission (EC) and the European Space Agency (ESA), some Indian observers had expressed surprise that a long-drawn negotiation process within the ambit of the EU-India Strategic Partnership came to naught. Envisaged to be the most accurate and sophisticated navigation system thus far, the Galileo project has attracted the attention of developed and developing nations mainly because of its civilian focus and near perfect resolution. It was not only a prestigious project of the European Union to showcase its technological capability, but was also a reflection of the EU’s simultaneous aspiration to demonstrate independence in this sector.

    However, if the developments of last week are any indication, it appears that this prestigious project is for the time being caught in a crisis. Already, the concerned EU officials under the current German presidency have expressed deep dissatisfaction over the progress of the project. Similarly, the press release of May 11 by Peter Hintze, Co-ordinator of Aerospace Policy and Parliamentary State Secretary at the German Ministry of Economics and Technology, is also significant in that Hintze lamented the failure of month-long negotiations within the European consortium even as he underscored the urgency of proceeding and completing the project in a globally competitive scenario. In the meantime, it has also been decided that henceforth EU member nations would fund the project, which was hitherto the task of a consortium composed of some major European firms. A revised proposal to enliven the project is on the anvil, which would also set a new deadline in the coming weeks. However, the project has missed its target of 2008 and a new deadline would not only incur additional cost but also lead to delayed entry into a highly competitive global market where all other nations have either started modernising their existing systems or have initiated joint ventures.

    Since its conceptualisation, Galileo was a political project, which was additionally meant to serve various objectives. Firstly, it reflects, like other European projects, the overlapping participation of non-EU members of the ESA like Norway, Switzerland and Canada, as well as the independence of the European Space Agency. The project was bound to experience a complex decision-making process, like in other areas of the EU.

    Secondly, European Commission Strategy Papers (e.g., European Space Policy: “ESDP and Space” of November 16, 2004, Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES): From Concept to Reality of November 10, 2005, and the latest European Space Policy of April 26, 2007) have given sufficient indications that policy makers saw Galileo as serving multiple objectives. For instance, it is considered to be an instrument of the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) as well as a tool to develop and intensify the EU’s external relations with other nations that wish to participate in the project. From the commercial point of view, the EU hoped to capture a big slice of the global space industry, which, in 2005, was worth US $180 billion and is projected to increase annually by 15 per cent. At present, ESA member states invest $4 billion annually and a similar amount overall in their respective national programmes. For its part, the European Commission has decided to invest $3.78 billion in space-related activities during 2007-2013.

    Thirdly, Europe in general is quite exercised by the CHINDIA phenomenon, including in the arena of space technology. The April 2007 European Space Policy is no exception in this regard. It observes that “countries such as China and India are rapidly mastering space technology, becoming challenging competitors on the commercial market.” It is worthwhile noting here the Indian Space Research Organisation’s recent success in launching an Italian astronomical satellite into space and that European space authorities are bound to look upon ISRO as a serious competitor in the near future. Similarly, on May 14, China launched a Nigerian communications satellite NIGCOMSAT-1 and in the process it had outwitted other bidders.

    Finally, Galileo is also seen as an independent endeavour of the EU, which has aspirations to be a global player. Successful completion of the project, it is believed, would enable the EU to become an independent user of space as well as serve its strategic goals like interchanging the technology from civilian use to military ends. This would especially come in handy given that European forces are being stationed in different areas of the world and Galileo’s success would serve them well.

    While it is true that Galileo was conceived to emerge superior to the American GPS and the Russian GLONASS, timely completion is of utmost importance in a globally competitive market. Failure to achieve the deadline is likely to result in further attrition from the ranks of potential partners. Though Galileo is at present not shelved, it is in a state of crisis.