What are the prospects for Britain cooperating with other countries around the world to meet its satellite navigation needs after it leaves the European Union? Is such cooperation a good use of scarce financial and industrial resources for these countries? Dr. John B. Sheldon, Chairman and President of ThorGroup GmbH and publisher of SpaceWatch.Global, reports.
Media reports in the UK press have revealed that the British government has approached Australia, and maybe even Japan, about the possibility of jointly funding and building a Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) in light of the troubled negotiations between the UK and the European Union over access to the Galileo system after Brexit has been completed.
In light of these reports, SpaceWatch.Global spoke with leading space policy experts from the UK, Australia, and Japan to gather their views on the matter. What becomes apparent is that while both Australia and Japan welcome substantial space cooperation with Britain, funding and building a fully-fledged satellite navigation constellation to rival Gaileo, Global Positioning System (GPS), GLONASS, and China’s Beidou, is not necessarily a priority in Canberra and Tokyo.
Galileo, Brexit, and Australia and Japan
To understand why Britain is seeking to cooperate with countries like Australia and Japan on a rival satellite navigation system, we must begin with the ongoing Brexit negotiations between the British government and the European Union.
At stake is not only British access to the Galileo system after it leaves the European Union, but also the participation of UK satellite companies currently contracted to build the Galileo satellites and infrastructure, worth billions of dollars.
The European Union has said that UK withdrawal will result in British companies losing these contracts and with London no longer having any governance role in Galileo operations, to include access to its military-grade precision code.
In response, Britain has threatened to build its own, alternative satellite navigation system in order to meet its civil and military positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) requirements for everything ranging from commercial aviation safety in British airspace through to the delivery of precision-guided munitions from British military airplanes.
Given the cost of building a satellite navigation constellation (billions of dollars), British officials have approached the Australian government about the possibility of jointly funding and building such a system.
“Australia is the only country we know the UK has officially made some overtures to regarding collaboration and sharing work in the construction of a UK GNSS. I heard rumours in some news reports that Japan was being considered as well but I don’t know how substantial that is,” said Dr. Bleddyn Bowen, a lecturer in International Relations at the University of Leicester in the UK, and one of Britain’s leading space policy experts, in an interview with SpaceWatch.Global.
Bowen argues that the rationale for the British approach to Australia is being driven by cost as well as the need to fill a critical capability gap. On cost, Bowen said, “Two primary factors are probably driving the UK to seek partners in a UK GNSS: cost and capability gap. The estimates of £3-5 billion for a single satellite programme for a country with a space budget of £370 million and a defence budget of £35 billion is significant. This is particularly true given the opportunity costs such a sum creates in the UK defence budget and space sector. Building a triplicate navigation system – following GPS and Galileo – may not be money well spent compared to building the UK’s first intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance satellites, or buying a series of additional Type 26 destroyers, or addressing chronic personnel shortages, for example.”
“Gaining input from Japan and/or Australia would help share the costs. The other factor is capability gap. The UK only did 15% of the work on Galileo. The finer technical details escape me, but both Australia and Japan are pursuing regional GPS augmentation systems. There may be synergies with UK experience in Galileo’s GNSS and their regional systems,” Bowen added, regarding the British capability gap..
From an Australian perspective, an augmented GNSS system that the UK, Australia, and perhaps other allied countries could develop might be worthy of consideration.
“Investing in an augmentation and reconstitution capability would be better use of Australian funds than simply paying out for a duplicate for GPS which is likely to become as equally as vulnerable over time. Such a capability could still fulfil the UK aspiration for an independent GNSS alongside GPS. But it makes sense to develop such a capability to be resilient in the face of growing counter-space threats,” said Dr. Malcolm Davis, a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) in Canberra, and a prominent Australian expert on space policy issues.
Bleddyn Bowen, however, is not so sure. “Chances of success are slim. Not impossible, but I am sceptical. Sticking with the two factors, one hurdle is the opportunity costs of such a massive programme (relative to space spending) and the security and sovereignty elements. Australia is an even smaller spender than Britain, so Australia isn’t that attractive financially. Its space spending is miniscule, its defence budget smaller than the UK’s, and has recently made large spending commitments in the US WGS system [a U.S. military satellite communications programme],” he said.
“The opportunity costs would be greater in Australia than in the UK and Japan. Japan meanwhile, whilst it can more likely afford contributions (doesn’t make it a wise investment because of opportunity costs though) it is not as intimate a security partner as Australia. GNSS technology is very sensitive and the UK guards its cryptographic and SIGINT tech closely. Australia is in 5 Eyes, Japan is not. So whilst UK and Japan are allies via the USA and the UK is exploring some joint development of missiles and next-gen aircraft, a GNSS system would get into a new, far more sensitive area of cooperation that would need to be negotiated. So – Australia good for security but no money, Japan is better for the money but a security integration headache,” said Bowen.
But Japan does not necessarily see the issue as one of trust and security. According to Professor Kazuto Suzuki of Hokkaido University, a prominent Japanese space policy expert and advisor to the Japanese government on space issues, the issue is primarily disparate interests when it comes to satellite navigation. “I think it is not Japan’s interest to collaborate with the UK. We have no interest in developing a PNT system covering the globe or European region. We will certainly be interested in exporting the Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS), so we will be able to provide technical assistance and other services to the UK if it decides to procure the QZSS system. There will be no reason for Japan to invest in collaborative project with the UK,” he said.
Moreover, Professor Suzuki believes that any official British approach to Japan about cooperating on building an alternative satellite navigation system is likely to disappoint London. “I think the Japanese Cabinet Office sees it as an opportunity to sell the QZSS system to the UK. However, QZSS will only be a regional system, and I’m not sure if the UK would be happy about it. But on the other hand, given the cost of developing an autonomous PNT satellite system, QZSS is more affordable than a global system like Galileo. It is up to the requirement and budget limit,” said Suzuki.
The contradiction of cooperation with several national industrial policies is also apparent to Bowen, a frequent commentator on British space policy issues and Britain’s leading academic experts. “Another problem that arises is the sovereignty of the system. The UK has made noises about an independent or ‘British’ system, yet once we take tenders from other countries they will not only want industrial returns (taking away form UK industrial profits and jobs) but also some executive control over the system, just as Britain seemingly is not happy with neither GPS nor Galileo being outside of British control, after decades of not really caring that much and relying on America come what may. Cooperation and integration with new partners would undermine the drive to secure UK industry and sovereignty – anathema to the Brexit rallying call for a ‘new’ ‘British’ system,” Bowen said.
“For me, these challenges of opportunity costs for UK, Australia, and Japan in space and defence more generally, plus the thorny issues of pooling sovereignty with Australia and Japan would make me think that seeking to remain part of the security aspects of Galileo is a more fruitful avenue for British space diplomacy,” added Bowen.
Malcolm Davis, on the other hand, believes that the Australian government will not necessarily dismiss the British approach immediately out of hand, but the British government will have a big task on its hands to convince Australian officials that yet another global satellite navigation system is required.
“I think that…the Australian government would certainly be receptive to an approach from the UK to participate on this project. That does not necessarily mean we’d say ‘yes’ but I can’t imagine us dismissing any offer outright. It would be up to the UK to make the case that either a direct UK-Australian partnership, or a Five Eyes project would be commercially viable and make strategic sense, given Australia’s extensive use of both commercial and military GPS systems. What would a UK-based or Five-Eyes system give us that we don’t have now? It would cost considerable money, and whilst there would be payoff in terms of jobs and sector growth, does it give us something new that GPS does not give us?” Davis said.
“The UK too would have to consider whether establishing a new system makes more sense than simply relying on the US GPS system already in place. Also, does something that replicates the architecture of GPS make sense given that space is now contested, degraded and operationally limited?” he added.
A Good Use of Scarce Space Resources?
This point made by Malcolm Davis raises the biggest question about funding and building an alternative to Galileo – with multiple global satellite navigation systems already in existence, is building yet another one a sound use of scarce space resources in Briatin, Australia, and Japan?
“Investing in an augmentation and reconstitution capability would be better use of Australian funds than simply paying out for a duplicate for GPS which is likely to become as equally as vulnerable over time. Such a capability could still fulfill the UK aspiration for an independent GNSS alongside GPS. But it makes sense to develop such a capability to be resilient in the face of growing counter-space threats,” said Davis.
For Davis, however, there are more pressing space issues that the UK and Australia should be cooperating on.
“Australia and the UK need to be working together on boosting space resilience through augmentation and reconstitution. That means greater investment in a suite of capabilities that are operationally responsive, flexible and survivable in the face of adversary counter-space threats,” Davis said. “Part of that is space surveillance, and Australia’s geographic location makes it ideally placed for the UK and Australia to enhance collaboration in this important task. Boosting space situational awareness within a Five Eyes Combined Space Operations (CSpO) context is an obvious first step, and that could include greater investment in ground-based facilities, and a more serious look at space-based space situational awareness with capabilities similar to Geosyncrhonous Space Situational Awareness (GSSAP), but perhaps covering LEO and MEO [low-earth and medium-earth orbits],” added Davis.
Davis also believes that UK-Australian space cooperation could be more fruitfully pursued by focusing on developing responsive space launch technologies, saying that, “the UK and Australia could work together on developing responsive space launch. The UK company Reaction Engines Pty Ltd is developing the SABRE propulsion system for its Skylon spaceplane that would be an ideal approach to responsive space launch from Australia. Current local thinking still looks at rockets (i.e. Gilmour Space Tech), but they are not looking at responsive space launch from my understanding. What might be achieved with the UK flying Skylon (if it can be fully developed perhaps with joint funding by UK and Australia or with other partners as well) from Northern Australia needs to be considered,” he said.
From a Japanese perspective, UK space cooperation is also important, but again, not necessarily on satellite navigation unless Britain is prepared to buy Japanese satellites. Kazuto Suzuki envisions a much broader and strategic cooperative space agenda between London and Tokyo. “I think there are many dimensions that Japan and UK can collaborate. First, science. Despite the failure of Beagle II [the British Mars probe], planetary science has been long standing issue that Japan would like to collaborate with the UK. Second, small satellite commercial ventures. Astroscale, the Singapore-based debris removal space venture, has an office in the UK. Japan and the UK have exchanged an MoU on the regulations on the debris removal activities. The UK is very keen for inviting small satellite ventures and Japan would see it as an opportunity if Japan-UK collaboration could facilitate the activities of those ventures. Third, military. The history of UK’s space activities for military use of space is the model for the Japanese MoD and SDF [Ministry of Defence and Self-Defence Forces]. Japan has launched the first commercial satellite for exclusively military purpose last year, and it was done through the Private Finance Initiative just as SKYNET 5.”
Australian expert Malcolm Davis also calls for a more technologically innovative approach to UK-Australian space cooperation, arguing that,“any satellite development the UK and Australia need to do should be in the context of a small satellite or space 2.0 paradigm to keep costs down, and keep pace with the innovation cycle. I don’t think we should be investing in satellites that have a 10-20 year life, cost hundreds of millions, and are vulnerable to a range of threats. Anything from networked Cubesat swarms to small satellites could be jointly developed by the MoD or Surrey Satellite in the UK and emerging Australian commercial space startups like SkyKraft or Fleet. So the UK and Australia should take a look at what can be done in this area that delivered useful military and national security products, without necessarily replicating existing space infrastructure and capability. Where’s the niche that UK and Australia, working together, can fill?” Davis asked.
Whatever one thinks about the rights and wrongs of Brexit, it would appear that basing post-Brexit UK space and industrial policy on the hothouse politics of Galileo negotiations may not be a wise move. If there is one takeaway from our discussions with these space policy experts it is that a more long-term and strategic perspective on post-Brexit UK space policy is vey much needed.