Stephen Castle: America intends to claim a new empire

Click to follow

America guards its primacy in space jealously, as Europe knows only too well. When the EU drew up plans to launch its own satellite navigation system in the late 1990s, Washington made its objections clear.

America's key ally in Europe, the UK, stalled the project, holding it up for months by demanding a report by management consultants and disputing the need for the system. Top US military brass at Nato claimed the European venture could interfere with signals used for American defence.

It was only after a host of assurances were given that Washington backed off and the EU went ahead with project Galileo. Late last December the first of a constellation of 30 navigation satellites blasted into space from a launch pad in Kazakhstan.

The US had reservations for two main reasons. It dislikes anything that can be interpreted as an effort to usurp its status as the dominant power in space and the world's only military superpower.

Galileo's satellites will circle the globe in three orbits at an altitude of about 23,000km (14,000 miles) - and challenge the supremacy of America's Global Positioning System. Designers say the European project will deliver real-time positioning to within metres with unrivalled accuracy.

The EU's project is civilian-run. The aim is to provide data that will make road-pricing schemes easier to run and driverless cars a possibility. Other uses include the monitoring of crop yields and tracking livestock.

But suggestions last week from the EU transport commissioner, Jacques Barrot, that Galileo might have military applications provoked a sharp slapdown from the UK.

The second reason is that Washington fears the project will allow the transfer of cutting-edge technology to hostile countries. An investment of €230m (£154m) from China in Galileo increased US worries that Beijing was trying to gain access to such material. So sensitive is the issue that officials working on the project keep top secret papers in a bank vault.

So will the new US space policy have implications for Galileo? EU officials were dismissive yesterday saying they saw no connection. Theoretically it is possible that, were the Europeans to agree to use their navigation system for military purposes, Washington would become very nervous.

Yet the EU is unlikely to emerge as an entity that is truly "hostile to US interests". The US has enough allies in the 25-nation bloc to veto any use of Galileo for military applications.