Thursday, December 02, 2004

Galileo: cat amongst the pigeons?

In a bombshell development, reported by the Indo-Asian News Service, India appears ready to pull out of the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation programme and join with the Russians in redeveloping the former Soviet Glonass system.

Earlier last month, we reported on this Blog that India had agreed in principle to join the Galileo programme – with a down payment of 300 million euros – although it was also making it clear that, for the money, it would expect to be an "equal partner" and just a "mere customer".

"If we are putting in 300 million euros we must have a say in the control of the satellite," a senior official said, adding: "If we don't have access to their codes we can be denied access to Galileo's signals in times of war." In response, the EU assured India that denial of service would occur only if there was a "global war."

However, it now appears that India has not been satisfied with the EU’s assurances and has announced it is putting together a deal with Russia which will enable them to pool their space technology skills to build an alternative to the Galileo and the US Navstar systems.

New Delhi is saying that India will become an "equal and sole partner" of Russia, and the deal is to be signed during Russian President Vladimir Putin's three-day visit to India, which started today.

This is something of a coup for Putin, who has capitalised on difficulties in the negotiations between India and the EWU, by reviving the Glonass project – which has decayed to such an extent as to be no longer reliable – and India to join it. Nevertheless, an Indian official has said the Russian and EU projects are not "mutually exclusive," indicating that New Delhi is keeping its option open on joining the Galileo project.

The strategic implications of this development are enormous. With the House of Commons Select Committee blowing cold on the Galileo project (link here), the UK government may be reluctant to commit further funding to the project, the EU desperately needs the financial input of countries like India, to help get the project off the ground.

This means that India will be able to play a very strong hand if it does, after all, commit to Galileo, and will be able to dictate its own terms – which will include being able to use the system for military applications. The threatened pull-out of India also strengthens the hand of China, which has invested 200 million euros in the system. China’s involvement becomes even more important, and will, like India, be able to dictate its own terms.

But possible development of Glonass offers a second satellite navigation system, independent of the US. China could perhaps follow in India’s footsteps and do a deal with Russia – from which it already obtains a substantial amount of its weapons imports. Even if used as a threat, this could increase the pressure on the EU to give China exactly what it wants in terms of access to the system.

For the US, this is could be a nightmare scenario. The Defence Department in April last set up a Task Force to study the implications of Galileo for its own system, and had held several secret meetings to take evidence form experts. Now it may have to factor in a revived Glonass system, immensely complicating the strategic and operational situations.

In one fell swoop, therefore, India has put a very serious cat in amongst some rather nervous pigeons.

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