Europe Attacks U.S. Space System; A European Version of the Global Positioning System Is Posing a Potential Threat Both to U.S. National-Security Interests and to the Stability of Trans-Atlantic Relations

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Byline: Scott L. Wheeler, INSIGHT

Space technology is threatening U.S. relations with Europe. The European Union (EU) is pursuing space technology that the United States fears, if completed as planned, would become a serious threat to U.S. national security, particularly battlefield communications, and barring European acceptance of a U.S. offer is likely to become highly corrosive for the trans-Atlantic relationship.

The Global Positioning System (GPS) was developed by the United States, put in place at a cost to American taxpayers of more than $12 billion, and is provided free to users worldwide. It is a series of satellites in orbit that serves as a global navigation system and allows a user to pinpoint his location anywhere on Earth within 10 meters (32.8 feet). The EU, however, is in the process of developing its own GPS system, called Galileo. In general, U.S. officials have no objection to the European project, and indeed have agreed to provide substantial advice and technical assistance provided that the EU accepts a proffered compromise on what is called the Binary Offset Carrier (BOC), or signal structure, of the systems.

The signal structure is at the heart of the disagreement, since the signal selected by the EU for Galileo is so close to the classified signal structure that the United States is about to deploy for military purposes called the "M Code" that U.S. security is threatened. When the United States built the world's first and only GPS system in 1973, it selected the optimum frequency range for the signal structure. This can be compared to a radio-station signal: When the frequency is tuned in precisely a clear signal is received from the radio, but when a slight turn from this frequency occurs, the signal weakens and static or other radio stations can be heard. At times even when the precise frequency is tuned in noise from a nearby radio frequency can bleed in. That is the problem U.S. officials say they have with the BOC that the European Union has selected for the Galileo project.

But there is more to it. "Our concern was that the signal structures chosen for Galileo not undermine the operation of [the] M Code and the ability of forces in the future to operate on a battlefield," said Charles Ries of the U.S. State Department at a briefing in early January. Ries, principal deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, is handling ongoing negotiations with the EU on Galileo. The M Code is a new facet of the American GPS system with direct and vital national-security implications designed to "ensure NATO forces and U.S. forces access to encrypted and secure global positioning in the battlefield while allowing U.S. and allied forces to deny access to ... commercial global-positioning signals to the adversaries," Ries explained.

But secure communication with troops in the field and the ability to jam an enemy's GPS access are only part. It also is used to direct missiles and smart bombs to military targets with precise accuracy functions that are absolutely essential to the sophisticated war-fighting capacities of the United States. And it is precisely here that U.S. officials say national security is being threatened by the European rival project.

The EU plans to use two main signal structures for Galileo. "One would be an encrypted signal called PRS, which is short for Publicly Regulated Service, and the other one would be an open signal [OS]," said Ries. The trouble results from the fact that the two Galileo signal structures have been scheduled for the same area as the M Code of the U.S. system, posing a strong potential for interfering with sensitive military communications. Ries said that in November "the Europeans made a proposal to us for the structure of the PRS signal that would not interfere with the M Code, and this was a major step forward." But that leaves the other Galileo signal structure, the OS, still in range to affect America's military M Code. …