Britain will walk away from the military aspects of the €10bn European Galileo satellite navigation system over fears that it would not be able to influence the programme’s development after the UK leaves the EU, the government has announced.
The UK will instead pursue building its own secure global satellite navigation system which will be compatible with the US Global Positioning System, prime minister Theresa May confirmed on Friday.
The decision will be a blow for Britain’s space industry, which had hoped that a compromise might be reached. Several UK-based companies have been closely involved in the development of Galileo, which was launched in 2003 as the world’s first civil-run satellite navigation system.
Both Galileo and the earth observation programme Copernicus, on which talks are continuing, had been seen as important to meeting the UK’s ambition to generate £40bn in sales from the space sector by 2030. Britain has left open the possibility of using the civilian aspects of Galileo.
Mrs May, who is in Argentina for a G20 summit, blamed the decision on the European Commission’s persistent refusal to allow the UK access to Galileo’s secure elements once its leaves the EU.
“I have been clear from the outset that the UK will remain firmly committed to Europe’s collective security after Brexit,” Mrs May said.
“But given the commission’s decision to bar the UK from being fully involved in developing all aspects of Galileo it is only right that we find alternatives. I cannot let our armed forces depend on a system we cannot be sure of. That would not be in our national interest.”
Shortly after Mrs May’s announcement, Sam Gyimah, the minister with responsibility for space technology, resigned in protest at the government’s Brexit policy. Galileo was a “clarion call” that EU interest would take precedence after Brexit, said Mr Gyimah, who added that he was open to the idea of a second referendum.
Whether Britain could retain access to Galileo’s secure public regulated service (PRS), an encrypted military grade signal, post-Brexit has been one of the most contentious issues during the withdrawal negotiations.
Under EU rules, non-member states cannot be involved in the development of PRS. The rules allow for such countries’ armed forces to use PRS with a security agreement but London has argued that it also needs oversight of the technology and its future development if it is to have confidence in the security of the system.
Gavin Williamson, the defence secretary, insisted on references to Galileo being restricted in the non-binding declaration on future UK-EU relations. The final declaration says that the UK and EU will simply consider “appropriate arrangements on space co-operation, including satellite navigation, where in the Parties’ mutual interest”.
However, the government has yet to make progress in recouping the €1.4bn it has invested in Galileo to date.
Although Britain’s investment is estimated to deliver returns to UK industry of €1.15bn up to 2020, the government is expected to seek compensation as part of the overall settlement with the EU.
The decision comes in the same week that Airbus, the European aerospace group, revealed that it had moved 80 jobs to sites on the Continent to be able to complete work on its final Galileo contract. UK-based companies have already been excluded from bidding on new contracts.
The government announced in August that it would spend close to £100m on an 18-month feasibility study to explore the development of a domestic satellite navigation system.
The UK is looking for partners on its new secure system, beginning with Australia and New Zealand. More than 50 UK companies have so far expressed an interest. Developing a fully fledged alternative, however, is expected to cost £3bn-£5bn.
Paul Everitt, chief executive of ADS, the aerospace, defence, security and space industry body, called on the government and industry to “work closely together and move quickly to make sure that advanced and valuable UK capabilities in this field are sustained”.
Graham Peters, chair of UKspace, the space industry lobby said: “This latest statement reinforces the need to ensure that the UK alternative to Galileo is fully committed, robust and sustainable.
“UKspace members are already engaged in the feasibility phase of the UK satellite navigation programme and we hope that early decisions are made about the full programme to allow industry to sustain the essential skills needed in the UK over the long term.”
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