In Space No-One Can Hear You Trump: Brexit, GPS, and the Iran Deal

If you’d skipped the news during 2016 you might wonder what this “Brexit” actually is, when the British, French, and German governments are perfectly aligned on crucial political issues like the future relationship with Iran. No, really.
Here, for example, is the three powers’ joint note issued after Trump announced the US was pulling out.

It is with regret and concern that we, the Leaders of France, Germany and the United Kingdom take note of President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States of America from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Together, we emphasise our continuing commitment to the JCPoA. This agreement remains important for our shared security. We recall that the JCPoA was unanimously endorsed by the UN Security Council in resolution 2231. This resolution remains the binding international legal framework for the resolution of the dispute about the Iranian nuclear programme. We urge all sides to remain committed to its full implementation and to act in a spirit of responsibility…

Here’s the No.10 Downing Street readout of Theresa May’s conversation with President Rouhani:

The Prime Minister reiterated the UK’s position that we and our European partners remain firmly committed to ensuring the Iran nuclear deal is upheld. She said it is in both the UK and Iran’s national security interests to maintain the deal…Both leaders agreed the importance of continued dialogue between the two countries, and looked forward to the meeting of UK, German, French and Iranian foreign ministers in Brussels on Tuesday where they will be joined by the EU’s foreign affairs High Representative Federica Mogherini to discuss the Iran nuclear deal and next steps

It’s as if none of it ever happened. But at the same time, a weird subplot of Brexit has developed where the two parties are accusing each other of being a menace to their security and the UK is plotting to launch £3bn worth of space hardware on its own. The combination of the two is highly revealing.

So the European Union decided back in 2004 to build its own satellite navigation and timing system, Galileo, as a competitor to the US Department of Defense’s GPS and Russia’s GLONASS. In the meantime China has also launched a (pretty bare-bones) system, Beidou. British Eurosceptics didn’t like it for the usual reasons of the time, for fear that it might somehow harm the special relationship. Quietly, though, the Ministry of Defence was more enthusiastic. Since 1991, the enormous boon of reliable precision navigation and timing for all kinds of purposes had become obvious, and so had the horrible possibility of losing it.

As early as 2003, the Russian manufacturer Aviakonvertsiya was marketing GPS jamming devices and Iraq used a few in the war of that year. Since then, the technology has become democratised to the point where lorry drivers carry jammers in order to subvert their bosses’ fleet-management tracking systems, sometimes with hilarious results, as when a London bank discovered that its GPS-backed time server went haywire every day at the same time as a delivery truck parked up across the street, and sometimes with less hilarious ones, as when aircraft using GPS for approach guidance got jammed by someone on a motorway near the airport. As with many of the great technologies of the information revolution, GPS was designed – back in 1978 – to work in an environment either of trust, or at least of electronic scarcity. A major argument for Galileo is that it is designed to be much more robust to jamming and spoofing.

Of course, another way to lose it would be if the US decided to cut it off. The implicit suspicion was what bothered the sceptics, but on the other hand, worrying about scenarios is what you pay a general staff for. And the UK also thought it had a good chance of getting a lot of workshare from Galileo. The project went ahead with the British paying about 15 per cent of the bill and getting rather more than that of the contracts – minor things like designing the radio receivers, developing the cryptography intended to protect it against spoofing, building the satellites themselves, and managing mission control.

Now everything is terrible. The European Commission is saying that the UK is a dangerous security risk as a third power, even though there are third party partners in Galileo and in any case it’s literally being manufactured in Stevenage. Of course, French, German, and Italian aerospace would dearly love the contracts, and all the stops are out on the Brussels lobbying game. Airbus has already promised to move mission control. The British are threatening to ban the export of the cryptographic technology involved and refuse people security clearances. And most astonishingly of all, they are seriously considering going on with the project unilaterally!

Part of the story here is the atmosphere of Brexit, a political fifth season when almost anything might happen as long as it’s weird. The Treasury hates technology projects, space, capital expenditure, and unilateral defence procurement, but astonishingly its righteous sentence has been suspended. It is true that there is a certain kind of Brexiter who loves a big engineering project, but I think there is a stronger explanation available.

That is: the elite has begun to hoist in the reality of Trump. We can see this in the synchronised diplomacy towards Iran. We can see it in, for example, the exchanges in the Commons on the 9th of May. Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry says:

what yesterday’s announcement confirmed is that as long as Donald Trump remains president we must get used to a world without American leadership

And Boris Johnson does not exactly disagree. It wasn’t that long ago that saying anything like that – even, like Johnson, omitting to condemn it – would mark you as a non-serious person. Disgraced former defence secretary Michael Fallon did try to push back, leading to this priceless moment of Gammon Drama:

Johnson says Fallon never expressed that view when he was in government.

More seriously, we can also see it – three billion pounds’ worth – in the Galileo contingency planning. It was possible to imagine, a few years ago, that the Bush presidency had been something in the nature of an accident. The Americans had got it wrong, but now they had elected someone normal and life could go on. But then it happened all over again. If someone suggested it to him, who can say that Trump wouldn’t order the USAF 50th Space Wing at Schriever AFB, Colorado to shut down GPS, or try to send all the billion or so users of the service outside the US a bill?

After all, if you believe in the US as a provider of global public goods and leader of economic and political integration, GPS is surely Exhibit A. President Reagan opened it to public use as a response to the Soviet shooting-down of a Korean airliner, an example of American leadership that would both shame and terrify the commies and also keep the airways safe for world trade. This is, physically, the stuff they’re always going on about!

The tragedy of the Brexiters, among other things, is that they finally got their wish of backing out of European integration the year the US backed out of globalisation.

6 thoughts on “In Space No-One Can Hear You Trump: Brexit, GPS, and the Iran Deal

  1. “who can say that Trump wouldn’t order the USAF 50th Space Wing at Schriever AFB, Colorado to shut down GPS, or try to send all the billion or so users of the service outside the US a bill?”

    European imaginations are really something when it comes to Trump. A bunch of hysterical hand-wringing about things that will NEVER happen, even if Bozo the Clown were president.

  2. “it’s literally being manufactured in Stevenage”

    The satellites are manufactured in Bremen. The payloads are made by SSTL in Guildford, though the critical component, the atomic clocks, are from Switzerland.

  3. Djr: thank you for the exactitude, I appreciate it (SSTL is now part of Airbus UK tho)

    Jason: Trump literally handed Angela Merkel a specious bill for US involvement in NATO and promised to impose trade sanctions on any and all countries that have a current account surplus with the US (including the UK and Germany). These are things that happened. If there is imagination here, it is this idea that somehow it’s all OK and these things did not happen although they did. It is no doubt pleasing to think this. The British government that believes in you more than any other – going by its actions – does not think this and is willing to back this opinion in size £5 billion.

  4. Alex, we handed Merkel a bill for NATO involvement because they have abused the alliance for DECADES. When was the last time they met their defense spending target? The US is footing the bill, we’ve been warning for a long time there would be consequences, Trump was the first president to have the balls to call Europe’s bullshit out. Live up to your agreements and this wouldn’t have happened.

  5. The reason why Trump won’t shut down/threaten to shut down GPS is that he has no clue what it is/what it does. If this was explained to him I would expect anything random…

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