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22 May 2007

Duel of the navigators

Space policy is a thing in two worlds – and we are not referring to the celestial versus the mud. National space programs and their results are among the most enduring symbols of the 20th century industrial age on the cusp of futurity. In the 21st century, those locked outside of the superpower race of the Cold War are still desperately attempting to demonstrate their national prowess using the same old game.

This is not to say the benefits of space activities are without value – but rather, that many of the space programs seeking the national prestige of a bygone era rapidly show the shoddy signs of age and irrelevance.

Thus, we are grateful to EU Referendum for raising the continuing discussion of the European Galileo navigation satellite constellation. This is one of those programs whose utility could have been much greater than its political aspirations doomed it to face.

The underlying tensions of the Galileo program have even less to do with its (questionable) practical utility in the everyday mundane but essential applications that GPS has come to fulfill in the civilian world. Rather, Galileo is at its heart an attempt to provide the same military applications that the US GPS constellation has demonstrated so masterfully – but in a fashion independent of the (rarely exercised) US options to control, degrade, or deny access to that system’s benefits to enemy combatants. It is yet another of the programs in which the EU is seeking to demonstrate parity with the US, without having to commit substantively to ensuring its own defense.

This is debate of the 90’s for which the time of hard decisions has finally come. It is no longer a matter of abstract defense “strategery”, but concrete operational decisions that will have to be made in the first hours of future conflicts. A European system (or even its PRC counterpart) would be the first choice of belligerents expecting to lose access to US provided signal. Such as system would constitute a key center of gravity for sophisticated adversaries, particularly if those adversaries employed precision-guided munitions (in addition to any of the other friction-reducing C4ISR benefits of good navigation capabilities). It is far more likely that non-state actors would rely on such a system, particularly if their hostile status is also contested in the Byzantine diplomacy of other EU institutions.

One can surely expect that terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, relying upon the ambiguity of EU perceptions won largely through their propaganda successes, would eagerly seek out this option in future conflicts. And given their demonstrated ability to deploy rather sophisticated guided weapons systems in the past, the capability may not be far out of reach.

Given this, the spectre of space based engagement of navigation assets becomes all the more likely for the great power combatants in a serious major theatre crises of tomorrow. The related problems created by the proliferation of ASAT capabilities, and the deep consideration of other more terrestrial options for navigation warfare (NAVWAR), are definitely in the intelligence community’s future for a long time to come.

Some excellent work has already been done in this area within the think tanks – and among the most prominent pieces have been the recent products out of MIT. More remains to be seen, and this again is again one of the unique (but increasingly frequent) areas in which much of the raw information is available to feed high quality analysis outside of the enclosures of the vault.

UPDATE: It appears that between the time this post was written, and went up at this blog, exactly that sort of quality analysis has been rapidly emerging from the wilds of the blogsphere. See also Belmont Club and Open Europe Blog. But then again, we should not be surprised. Few things are as likely to spark a blogswarm on an issue than a mention by Instapundit.

We are glad to see serious thinkers begin to demonstrate the robust value of the distributed analytic mechanism which is the national security / foreign affairs / policy community of interest in the blogsphere. It is a strong argument towards the increasing privatization of intelligence – for if an spontaneous, emergent, amateur and hobbyist activity such as blogging can produce such results, how much better would the community be if such efforts were encouraged and energized through market mechanisms?

Unfortunately, this argument all too often falls on the deaf ears of those that would pursue an intelligence community of symbolic national prestige, rather than one that provided practical applied value for its consumers. Against this worrying trend, the example of such costly white elephant programs as provided by the EU should be foremost in mind.

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