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Diplomatic reports show plans to merge Europe's Galileo system and the United States' GPS system: The militaries "should have the same advantage."

GPS logs (Aaron Parecki)


Whenever German space scientists have ambitious plans in the works, they seem to always take them first to the American Embassy in Berlin. According to documents furnished by Wikileaks, engineers at the German National Aerospace Agency (DLR) went to American embassy officials to push a new proposal to combine the GPS and Galileo satellite navigation systems. In a separate meeting at the embassy, the diplomatic cables also reveal, private German space contractors pitched plans for an entirely new missile defense system.

During at least two informal meetings at the American Embassy in Berlin, a senior DLR staff member proposed a merger between the United States' GPS satellite navigation system and its European counterpart Galileo, according to diplomatic dispatches sent by the US embassy in Berlin to Washington, and made available to Die Welt along with the 250,000 documents recently released by Wikileaks. The documents say that the proposed common system would be placed under NATO control, and DLR space-program director Hubert Reile thought that it could become reality within 10 years.

Europe's Galileo system has been plagued by rapidly rising costs, lack of a clear mandate, and until now, an unrealistic timetable. A merger would solve many of its current problems, but would also put to rest the original idea of the Galileo system: Europe's very own navigation system, independent from the US and the military, which also guarantees maximum reliability for civilian users. The United States currently reserves the right to limit the accuracy of given locations in times of crisis or war. This last such instance occurred during the 1999 war in Kosovo.

At an informal meeting in September 2009, German DLR researchers argued that the two systems would function more reliably and would be less susceptible to interference if merged together. Reile also pointed to the rising number of highly developed GPS jamming devices as a further reason to merge the two systems. According to one dispatch, Reile believes it would be better to have 60 satellites in orbit than 30. Users would then receive the best possible service and the US and European militaries "should have the same advantage," said Reile.

The head of DLR also said a window of opportunity was now open, as Galileo is still in the design phase and that there was still the chance to involve the US government in this process. This was already the second time that Reile had put forward this proposal at the US Embassy.

Reile was confident that he could convince the other European partners about merging the two systems. The issue had reportedly already been the subject of informal discussions, and other major EU partners - notably, France - are said to be extremely interested in the proposal. According to the cables, Reile estimated that around half of the European participants in the Galileo scheme would cooperate. Reile has even heard encouraging reactions from the UK, a nation traditionally critical of the European Union.

Reile was already testing the waters with the Americans back in July 2008 to find out whether they were willing to cooperate on satellite navigation. U.S. diplomats saw this initiative as a sign that doubts were growing over whether the ambitious EU project would be able to comply with planned time and budget restrictions.

Reached for comment, the DLR did not offer a concrete statement on the details of the meetings. A DLR spokesman said there was "nothing new in the close cooperation between Galileo and GPS," and that the EU and the US agree on security issues, such as exactly which frequencies should be used by the two systems. This however doesn't mean the systems would be merged, but instead signaled an expansion of existing cooperation, said the spokesman.

A whole new missile defense system

The department chief of the German satellite manufacturing company OHB Systems, based in Bremen, also paid a visit to the US embassy. On December 11, 2009, OHB manager Gerd Hofschuster proposed to the Americans the construction of a completely new missile warning and defense system. He'd already found a name for the celestial shield: "Athena." It would be the Northern German "Star Wars'-style response to the threat posed by rogue states firing long-range missiles. Hofschuster "firmly believes that ‘Athena" could complement the existing US missile warning system," write embassy staff in a dispatch classified as "confidential."


Hofschuster, a former employee of the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND), promoted his company's two-phase sensor system, which would be equipped with two special infrared sensors. The first would continuously scan all relevant areas in which missiles are stationed, immediately recognizing and reporting each launch. If a missile launch is detected, the second sensor would track the missile and would be able to provide data for a missile defense of the attacked country. The Americans didn't seem very enthusiastic about the proposal, noting that it would be very difficult to find European partners, and Germany would not be willing to foot the bill alone. So long as funding was not secured, "Athena" would probably remain consigned to the realm of "mythology and the world of simulations," the cable read.

US diplomats were however quite interested in complaints by a senior manager at EADS (European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company) about reports of appalling cooperation with the French within the multinational system. Tom Walati, who according to EADS has since left the company, visited the US Embassy in Berlin in January 2010. He speculated on the sale of EADS satellite division Astrium, which lags far behind its competitors OHB and the French defense contractor Thales. Walati said the Galileo program was as good as lost and that EADS was only second choice as the contractor of the next generation of Meteosat satelites.

Walati also wanted to know why a French senior executive at EADS appeared content to let Astrium slip toward insolvency, in order to sell the unprofitable arm on to Thales. He said the French were doing this in order to gain complete control over the sensitive satellite technology. It seems the Americans found the conspiracy theory a bit "far-fetched" but could see how governments would want to have full control over the technology in these fields.

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