Senior British civil servants are reportedly urging government ministers to abandon plans to build the UK’s own global navigation satellite system (GNSS), arguing that the proposed £5 billion project is “unaffordable” amid the economic devastation being wrought by the Coronavirus pandemic.
According to an 8 May 2020 report in the British newspaper The Telegraph, the senior civil servant in the Cabinet Office, Sir Mark Sedwill, along with senior officials at the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, are pressuring ministers to close down the project in the coming weeks. As well as arguing that the UK GNSS project, estimated to cost anywhere between £3 to £5 billion, is unaffordable in the current economic climate, the civil servants also maintain that it will not provide value for money to the British taxpayer.
“I’m relieved that there appears to some sense at last in the decision-making and internal scrutiny on this,” Dr. Bleddyn Bowen, Lecturer in International Relations and Space Policy at the University of Leicester, told SpaceWatch.Global in an email. “The opportunity costs of a UK GNSS are extremely large, especially for a triplicate space service that does not provide any new military or civilian capability. Compare that to new or added value space technology sectors the UK could invest in at a fraction of the cost, both for defence and civilian purposes.”
The British government under former Prime Minister Theresa May pledged to build its own GNSS after the European Union (EU) denied the UK access to the source code of the Public Regulated Service (PRS) of the European Galileo GNSS. The Galileo’s PRS allows users with access to utilise more precise and reliable GNSS signals for applications such as military operations.
The current British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is a vocal supporter of a UK GNSS system, despite criticism by many space policy experts in the country who argue that between Galileo and the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) the UK already has access to highly precise and secure GNSS services.
These critics also argue that the proposed funding for a UK GNSS capability could be better spent on other space capabilities that would be far more useful to Britain’s standing as a space power.
The Telegraph also reports that it has obtained a study conducted by the management consultancy firm McKinsey for the UK Space Agency that claims a UK GNSS capability could generate as much as £480 million a year in corporate subscriptions by 2030, but the newspaper provides no details about how McKinsey arrived at that finding.
“I’d be sceptical,” Dr. Bowen told SpaceWatch.Global. “I don’t know how they’ve [McKinsey] arrived at that figure. But the same tactic of dangling economic returns from GNSS services is employed in pushing through Galileo in the EU. The economic projections on Galileo are difficult to grasp and are questioned by many. Some analysts do think that because GPS enabled position-based services in the US civilian economy in the 1990s that it can be replicated elsewhere. But GPS created a new market – Galileo and a UK GNSS are entering a crowded and competitive market that GPS and related GPS-based services already dominate.”
While critics of a UK GNSS capability might be glad to see it abandoned, such a decision would come as a blow to many in the UK space industry sector especially at a time of economic hardship brought about by the pandemic.