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07 March 2008, 13:57

Flying solo: Galileo's true purpose?

Susanne Härpfer

"Eventually we want satellite navigation to be the sole means of navigation", explained Francisco Salabert, head of Eurocontrol's Satellite Navigation Policy Office during his lecture at the Satellite Navigation Summit in Munich. The Galileo system will at least make satellite navigation more robust. This would make the actual goal possible: for air traffic to use only satellite navigation. A proposal to that effect is being submitted to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in Montréal.

For the first time, the true plans for the future of aviation and airline security have been confirmed openly. And for the first time, Galileo's role has been explained publicly: cost savings to the detriment of other navigation systems. Similar plans originate from the 1990s. Officially they were tabled because of their devastating effects on security. But Eurocontrol's presentations at the convention makes it plain: in fact, it is obvious that for all these years, this intention has been pursued despite assurances to the contrary.

First, the 1996 US Federal Radionavigation Plan called for an end to all navigation systems except for the Global Positioning System (GPS) by the year 2010. At that time, the German Department of Transportation adopted this approach of satellite navigation as the sole means of navigation. The term "sole means" was used to describe this approach. Gary Kosciusko, member of the Presidential Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection (PCCIP), warned at a conference in 1998 that all ground-based navigation systems would be replaced by satellite navigation. The US Department of Defense and experts at Jane's also cautioned against a concept that would allow only satellite navigation.

Peter Quaintmere of the International Federation of Airline Pilots Association, (IFALPA), was appalled at these plans. GPS is still vulnerable to both intentional and unintentional interference, in the form of jamming and spoofing. Incidents in the past have shown that both breakdowns and deliberate interference with GPS signals have caused a complete disruption of the system. During the war in Kosovo, several pilots experienced a complete loss of GPS. The Northern Edge 2004 exercise in Alaska gave Europeans a glimpse of what the future has in store for them. Just after the Galileo contract was signed in June, of all times, the US military tested anti-Jammer techniques at the exercise. They essentially paralysed civilian use of GPS. Campers and bikers could no longer depend on the data displayed on their devices.

Such a blackout could be especially grave for pilots. Not every private pilot would receive adequate warning, criticised Jeff Meyers of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. If GPS, or Galileo, were to be disrupted pilots would need backup systems for navigation. Until now, the weak signals from GPS satellites were used, which can be disrupted relatively easily and can give false data – this could be fatal if pilots rely on them. From civil aircraft to stealth bombers, all aviation depends on GPS.

According to information in the 16 July, 2004 edition of the Washington Times, Russian jammers were used against American weapons systems during the Iraq war. But Lance W. Lord, General of the US Air Force, claimed that they had no influence on American tactics. Still, defence expert John Pike of Global Security says that the Pentagon has spent millions on anti-jamming technology. The attacks have also shown that the satellite signals need to be amplified to avoid being easy prey for jamming.

In extreme cases even civil users can be affected. Millions of cars in Europe are equipped with satellite navigation. During the Iraq war ADAC, a German automobile association, warned its members not to depend on GPS. The club was concerned that the US may try to limit the use of its system. Since Galileo could also be affected by a war or a crisis, it cannot serve as backup system for civil aviation. For that reason the "sole means" concept was tabled. All the more reason for the European commission to share a feeling of scepticism:

In five years' time, the European Union's dependence on satellite radionavigation will be as far-reaching as in the United States. Disrupting or jamming the Galileo signal by the intelligent use of sources of interference in the hands of economic terrorists, criminals or hostile agents could prevent continuous signal reception over a wide geographical area, seriously impairing the efficiency of national security and police forces, or of economic activities, and even leading to the complete shutdown of services in some areas.

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