Europe considers U-turn on military use for 'Galileo'

Europe's satellite navigation system might be opened up for military use, the European Commission has suggested, in a policy shift that sets it on a collision course with Britain and the United States.

Billed as a civilian project, a rocket blasted the first of a constellation of 30 navigation satellites into space last December from a launch pad in Kazakhstan.

Now the European commissioner for transport, Jacques Barrot, has crossed a new threshold, suggesting that the Galileo project, which aims to rival America's Global Positioning System (GPS), might have defence applications. The idea could help recoup some of the financial outlay on the project, the development costs of which have grown by €500m (£340m) in the past few months.

It would also help to boost the EU's ambition to develop a larger military capability to back up its foreign policy, and would be welcomed by France.

Speaking in Luxembourg, M. Barrot said that "Galileo was supposed to be a civilian system only but I wonder whether we shouldn't question that."He added: "I myself believe that the idea of only using Galileo for civilian purposes will not persist into the future because I think that our military cannot do without some sort of [navigation] system."

The transport commissioner's comments have revived differences about a project which took shape against the background of deep misgivings in Washington. The US was originally opposed to the European scheme on the very basis that it might have military applications. Britain initially stalled over Galileo, demanding a report by management consultants before it subsequently threw its weight behind it.

A €230m investment from China increased US worries that Beijing was trying to gain access to cutting-edge technology.

Britain gave M. Barrot's comments a dusty response. A spokesman for the British Government's Department for Transport said: "The UK position is well known: Galileo is a civil programme under civil control. This view was agreed by the EU Transport Council in the Council conclusions of December 2004." There was no reaction from US diplomats contacted yesterday.

The European Commission insisted that there was no question of Galileo becoming a predominantly military project and that control would remain in civilian hands. A spokesman said that, though it was described as a civilian project in council conclusions, decisions on its applications still have to be made.

Nevertheless M. Barrot's comments underline a significant shift. The project's organisers have, up to now, suggested a host of applications for the system in maritime, rail and road transport.

Galileo's 30 satellites will circle the globe in three orbits at an altitude of around 23,000km and its designers say the project will deliver real-time positioning down to within metres with unrivalled accuracy. The system will make road-pricing schemes easier to run and driverless cars a possibility. Other uses include the monitoring of crop yields and tracking livestock.

Galileo is also designed to be inter-operable with the two other global navigation systems, America's GPS and Russia's Global Navigation Satellite System (Glonass).

According to the financial plans the deployment of the satellite system will cost €3.4bn and the launch phase, which will require €2.2bn, should be complete by 2010. One third of that will be funded by the tax-payer, the rest from private sources. The project has been managed by the Galileo Joint Undertaking which was set up in 2002 by the EU and the European Space Agency.