In space, as in so many policy areas, no one can hear you scream. Alex Andreou on another multi-million-pound fiasco driven by narrow nationalism
The sorry tale of Britain’s as-yet-unnamed rival to the EU’s Galileo programme took another unexpected, miserable and hugely expensive turn in the past few days.
It is widely reported that the Government has committed £500 million to a consortium seeking to bail out the global communications firm OneWeb in exchange for a 20% stake in the ailing company. The biggest player in this “British” consortium is, in fact, Indian giant Bharti Enterprises, which is controlled by billionaire – and fan of Brexit – Sunil Mittal.
Bharti is already one of the largest investors in OneWeb. So, it is in effect investing to save its own investment and getting help from a sizable chunk of British tax money to do so.
This is broadly seen as a last ditch attempt to rescue the UK’s plan to avoid participating in the EU’s Galileo programme by launching its own rival Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS). Boris Johnson’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings is reported to have been “instrumental” in this bid.
The OneWeb entity on which the UK is bidding is actually a joint venture with Airbus – itself owned to a significant extent by the German, French and Spanish. The UK is, in a sense, pumping money into a failed European project simply to avoid participating in a very successful one. That absurdity aside, the bid fails even on its own merits.
Despite BBC News reporting that “the OneWeb service would be back-up for GPS in case it is attacked or fails”, most experts in the field are warning that it is no such thing. The satellites which form part of its network currently have no such technology and are too small to be retrofitted. Simply put, ‘we’ve bought the wrong satellites’.
The UK spat out its dummy, so violently it flew into space. Looking at that orbiting dummy the UK thought: how hard could it be? As it turns out, quite hard.
What is more likely is that the Government decided to sink this enormous amount of money for a non-controlling stake, in exchange for some jam-tomorrow promise that if the company survives and if it is technically doable, it will try to piggy-back this technology on its next generation of satellites. Experts doubt this is even feasible, due to technical considerations.
“This situation looks like nationalism trumping solid industrial policy,” says Giles Thorne, a specialist researcher in the field who works at Jefferies International. What is worrying is that, for anyone who understands the full story of how the UK dropped out of Galileo and decided to plough a lonely furrow, “nationalism trumping industrial policy” is absolutely par for the course.
And it is a crucial story to understand, not just because it is emblematic of the Brexit sklerosis currently choking the nation’s economic lifeblood but because, despite being unsexy, it is of singular importance.
Lack of access altogether to such a system would, according to the Government’s own commissioned research, cost the UK economy an estimated £1 billion a day or one-sixth of its GDP.
Stick that on the side of a bus.
How it Started: The Rationalism of Galileo
Elements of Galileo, such as the timing and navigation signal (PRS) designed to be used by government agencies and emergency services, are already operational. Full capabilities will all come online this year and the project is due to be completed with the launch of ‘spare’ satellites in 2026.
The UK had already invested £1.2 billion in Galileo and helped to define important aspects of the system’s encryption, including PRS, as well as helped build and operate the 28 satellites already in orbit.
Importantly, Galileo – unlike its US, Russian and Chinese counterparts – will be the only such system under civilian, democratically accountable, transparent control. Further, it is not an ‘exclusive’ system. Using it with another, such as GPS, hugely improves accuracy. In fact, Norway is in the process of negotiating PRS access to do precisely that.
Contrary to misconceived headlines, the UK has not been ‘kicked off’ the project. It has simply been told that it no longer has automatic, unqualified access to it unless it negotiates such access and agrees to abide by the relevant rules. This is as near to a case of misunderstanding causing mass media hysteria as I have seen – unsurprising given that the Defence Secretary at the time was Gavin Williamson.
In late March 2018, rumours began to circulate – based on an official’s interpretation of a letter from the European Commission which has been frequently reported, but not seen – that British companies may be excluded from bidding for particularly sensitive Galileo manufacturing contracts. Williamson, having probably only heard the first half-sentence of what an advisor told him, is reported to have “hit the roof”.
By May 2018, Michel Barnier had entirely clarified the position on the record: “Third countries (and their companies) cannot participate in the development of security sensitive matters, such as the manufacturing of PRS-security modules. Those rules were adopted together by unanimity with the UK as a member, and they have not changed. Those rules do not prevent the UK, as a third country, from using the encrypted signal of Galileo, provided that the relevant agreements between the EU and the UK are in place.”
It seems so clear in retrospect: participation in the end project was completely open to negotiation. The only exclusion was that third-country companies could no longer participate in the manufacture of security-sensitive components – a position with which Williamson could be expected to have some sympathy considering his position on Huawei.
But by this point, nobody was listening. The then Prime Minister Theresa May was facing an open revolt from her Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who labelled her negotiating stance “crazy”. Politically, she needed a phony war and this was as good as any.
How it Escalated: The Sleep of Reason
By mid-May 2018, in a naive attempt at vindictiveness, the UK Space Agency wrote to all companies involved in Galileo manufacturing, reminding them that they could not bid on future Galileo contracts without state authorisation. This effectively told them that, if those nasty Eurocrats were going to prevent them from bidding for contracts, their own government might as well jump the gun.
It was at this point that it officially announced: “The UK Space Agency is leading the work to develop options for a British alternative to Galileo, to guarantee our satellite positioning, navigation and timing needs are met in the future.”
BBC News reported this as: “UK ups the ante” – in the same way someone involved in a verbal altercation could “up the ante” by punching himself in the face. Certainly, it gives one’s opponent pause for thought.
The conservative press was instantly enamoured by the idea, reporting the proposed £3 billion project, as if the UK had already started building it, complete with photographs of ministers pointing to the sky, when all that had happened was an announcement that the Government intended to bring together a task force to look into it. This turned into £3 to 5 billion, which turned into £5 billion.
In Brussels, the move was largely dismissed as “completely pointless” since everyone knew and experts agreed that it would be a highly irrational move from the UK to spend four or five times the money it had already invested for a worse system decades down the line. Everyone concurred that it was “just not a believable option”.
But, as has been the case on every occasion the EU has asked the UK to negotiate the rules of access to a thing it no longer has automatic access to – an uncontentious proposition in a sane world – the UK spat out its dummy, so violently it flew into space. Looking at that orbiting dummy the UK thought: how hard could it be? As it turns out, quite hard.
By August 2018, the Government had set aside £92 million of its Brexit ‘readiness fund’ for feasibility studies to explore alternatives to Galileo. By December 2018, the £5 billion project was confirmed, with Johnson promising a “full launch” by 2030, despite its conspicuous absence from the Conservative Party manifesto and appended costing document.
It is utterly incongruous to see the same newspapers, usually obsessed with relative pennies of taxpayer money spent on phantom benefit fraud and phantom health tourism, shake their pom-poms for a vanity triplicate £5 billion space programme – a better version of which Britain has already paid for and has been offered ready access to, simply by agreeing to the rules it co-drafted.
How It Fell Apart: Limited Bandwidth
Experts had been pointing out severe flaws in the UK’s plan for some time, calling it “deeply embarrassing for British Space”.
The truly finite resource when it comes to satellite projects is the radio frequency spectrum. Launching a satellite may be relatively straightforward, but the question is whether it will be able to transmit information back and forth without affecting the thousands of systems already circling the planet.
It took the EU and US more than two years of complex negotiations to agree how Galileo systems would mesh seamlessly, rather than interfere with, America’s GPS. This was 16 years before the project was operational, in 2004. The UK has made no such studies or inquiries that I can find.
Having said that, the UK cannot actually launch satellites. It has no launch vehicles of its own – not since Black Arrow, 50 years ago. It would have to either develop that technology and build them or rely on the US, the EU or India to launch its satellites, as well as repair and replenish them.
Further, the cost of putting a satellite positioning system in place is only one element. Galileo has an estimated maintenance cost of €800 million every year. The UK could share that with another 27 countries or decide to go it alone. In which case, calling it a £5 billion project is misleading, when it could also entail a tripling of the UK’s entire current annual space programme budget, just for maintenance.
Not to mention that supply capacity in the sector is very limited and most of the manufacturers involved are highly mobile; the result of international joint ventures who have facilities across the world. If either the UK or the EU tried to prevent them from bidding on contracts, they can simply relocate.
Most damning of all is the charge that such a “triplicate system”, at huge cost, would add precisely nothing to the UK’s capabilities, but instead result in huge opportunity costs by siphoning talent and resources away from more useful projects.
This matters. Deeply. A report commissioned by the Government warns that disruption to the UK’s access to a comprehensive GNSS could result in disruption to military and commercial applications, vulnerabilities in telecoms and compromise everything from power distribution across the national grid and rail signals to the stock market and access to ATMs. It could also render government infrastructure, including emergency services susceptible to hacking.
Galileo contracts are also worth billions to UK manufacturing. The decision to bow out of the project left “optimist by nature” Chris Skidmore, then Minister for Science, in the absurd position of accepting that the UK would no longer be in the programme, but hoping that it could continue being a leading components supplier for a project in which it no longer wished to participate.
With wretched predictability, the project had run into trouble by early March 2020, with a six-month “pause” being briefed.
By the beginning of May, it was reportedly close to being altogether scrapped. In early June, ministers were briefing that they were “exploring alternatives” to the alternatives they had been exploring at great cost for the past two years. On June 20, Lord Willets reassured the nation that what the Prime Minister had in store was actually going to be “better” than Galileo.
Lack of access altogether to such a system would cost the UK economy an estimated £1 billion a day or one-sixth of its GDP
It now seems that that ‘better’ alternative was, in fact, this bid for insolvent OneWeb. Let’s hope the Canadians do us all a favour and scupper the UK-led bid – after all, they want the satellites for what they actually do, rather than some promised bolt-on chimera. It’s horrid to think how much painting satellites in Union Jack colours will cost us.
“This entire episode is overturning decades of quite prudent British space policy, which is to minimise public spending and maximise the capabilities gained from allies and partners on both sides of the Atlantic,” concluded Bleddyn Bowen, lecturer in space policy at the University of Leicester. “There’s nothing preventing Britain now from saying we want to negotiate our way back into [Galileo].”
Only there is something preventing Britain from doing anything vaguely sensible. In every aspect of governance, affecting every area of our lives, we continue to be victims of a bankrupt politics that has, for some years now, rejected any rational, evidence-led, pragmatic solution, in favour of empty nationalism and jingoistic narratives.
In space, as in so many policy areas, no one can hear you scream.