Yes I realise it’s my tax pounds paying for it, and yes I do trust the USA, but despite all that I still think Europe should build the Galileo satellite navigation system. Plenty of people who know more about the subject than me disagree (and plenty who know less than me disagree as well.) Their arguments are quite rightly based largely on cost/benefits. But that’s not my battleground. I think Europe should build Galileo because although I trust the USA – creator of the superb GPS – I don’t completely trust it, and nothing in history persuades me that handing over control of something as fundamental as satellite navigation to any one power on earth is a good idea.I wrote extensively about all that stuff in the 1995-1998 timeframe when the importance to the civilian world of the military-created GPS was becoming apparent. I learned the basics of GPS from a little handbook called “GPS – The Fourth Utility”. And so it proved – GPS really has become the fourth utility, but it’s also the first one that can be provided globally. (The others are fast catching up I realise.)
At that time the USA made scarcely any attempt to conceal its ambitions to use the provision of GPS to gain economic and geo-political advantage. Fat briefing papers spelled out with total clarity the importance of the system to US business, and warned of the danger of letting Europe catch up.
I attended flight trials of a GPS-based precision landing demonstration in Brussels, using Honeywell kit at which US military officers told me the plan was to get that stuff rolled out in East European countries, pretty much for free, as a matter of urgency. They didn’t bother being discreet, as far as they were concerned it was blindingly obvious that a race for influence was going on. Not for nothing had Russia also developed a satnav system – Glonass.
As it happened, GPS precision approaches turned out to be much harder to achieve than most people thought. European CAAs pointed that out at the time (led by the incomparable Jim Lawson at the UK CAA – hope all’s well in retirement Jim) but they weren’t really believed because “they would say that wouldn’t they”. Well, it’s 2007 and GPS modestly-precise approaches are just barely becoming viable. Anyhow, that’s a side issue to my point.
Since then even more GPS applications have emerged than anyone imagined, in part thanks to the US ending the ‘selective availability’ restriction on the system. It is now so ingrained in the global infrastructure – right down to the operation of the internet itself – that life would be markedly the worse without it. Put simply, I don’t think it’s good for the world that this fundamental commodity should be controlled by any one nation. I have huge affection for America and I hope I always will. But we are talking epic timescales here and there have been, and may be again, people running America that frankly I wouldn’t trust.