The UK’s plan for its own GPS is Brexit in a nutshell

UK PM Theresa May visits Farnborough Airshow with astronaut Tim Peake.
UK PM Theresa May visits Farnborough Airshow with astronaut Tim Peake.
Image: Reuters/Matt Cardy
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As the United Kingdom hurtles towards the uncertainty of its exit from the European Union, the high cost is becoming clear—even in space.

Today, the UK government announced it would spend at least £100 million ($130 million) to study launching its own satellite constellation, a move that could cost several billion pounds.

More than just a way to find yourself with a mobile phone, satellite constellations like the US Global Positioning System are a vital part of the entire global economy. But while the UK has the industrial capacity to manufacture such a system, financing a new system itself just doesn’t make sense except as a matter of pride, or industrial policy.

Countries don’t want to rely on potential adversaries when it comes to guiding troops into battle or missiles to their targets, among other important GPS tasks. Russia has its own satellite system called GLONASS, and China a system called BeiDou. Europe is building Galileo, its own program to launch a new constellation of navigation and timing satellites.

The UK put £1.2 billion ($1.6 billion) into Galileo. But after Brexit, European authorities decided—out of prudence or for negotiating leverage—that Galileo must be built by member states, forcing the UK out. Now the UK hopes to claw that money back and build its own.

But the decision to create a whole new system from scratch is surprising. An easier alternative would be for the UK to double-down on its long-standing trans-Atlantic military alliance with the US, committing to relying on GPS. The country already participates in a combined space command with the United States, Australia and Canada. Any satellites it builds will have to be launched by a foreign rocket-maker anyway, since the UK lacks that capability today.

Furthermore, odds are low that the UK will enter into a military conflict with the US or the EU (NATO still exists, after all), making a separate navigation system an unnecessary expense. But, as an independent power, the UK must keep up with the Joneses, and they all have sat-nav systems.