An executive at Airbus says that UK work on the Galileo sat-nav system will have to be moved out of the country if the company wins a key contract.
Galileo has become something of a political football in Brexit talks.
The EU says it would have to stop the UK from accessing the encrypted part of the network when it leaves next year.
Colin Paynter, the company’s UK managing director, said that EU rules required Airbus to transfer all work to its factories in France and Germany.
Mr Paynter was speaking at a Commons committee hearing on Exiting the European Union on Wednesday.
The system was conceived to give Europe its own satellite-navigation capability – independent of US GPS – for use in telecommunications, commercial applications, by emergency services and the military.
Airbus is currently bidding for the renewal of a contract covering the Galileo ground control segment – potentially worth about 200 million euros. This work is currently run out of Portsmouth.
About 100 people are currently employed by Airbus on these services. Most would likely have to move to where the work is, but it’s possible some could be reallocated to other projects.
“One of the conditions in that bid documentation from the European Space Agency is that all work has to be led by an EU-based company by March ’19,” he told the committee.
“Effectively that means that for Airbus to bid and win that work, we will effectively novate (move) all of the work from the UK to our factories in France and Germany on day one of that contract.”
Asked by Committee chair Hilary Benn MP whether the Brexit transition period could mitigate this condition, Mr Paynter replied: “No, because this area of Galileo – and many areas of Galileo – is classed as a security-sensitive procurement. I believe that isn’t covered in the transitional arrangements.”
The UK’s access to the encrypted part of Galileo, which would be required for military and security uses of the system, would be blocked by the EU after Brexit.
This warning prompted the Business Secretary Greg Clark to announce that the government would look into options for developing its own satellite-navigation system.
Asked by Labour MP Pat McFadden whether developing a British sat-nav system was feasible, Mr Paynter replied: “I think the key thing for me is, it’s not up to industry to determine whether there’s a requirement or need for an independent UK system… I would say that, in terms of feasibility, I think after such a long and deep involvement with the Galileo programme as UK industry, we have all the skills and capabilities needed to support that programme should it come out.”
But Dr Bleddyn Bowen, who researches space and defence at the University of Leicester, told the committee: “Technically, yes, it’s feasible – Britain could do it. But it will cost a lot of money and it will run over budget.”
He added: “You need to look at the other GNSSs – global satellite navigation systems – that have been built. The Americans are currently building their third generation of GPS satellites, which have become notorious for cost overruns and delays because they’re encountering new technological problems as they improve the system.
“Britain has just built the satellites for the Galileo system. That means Britain has to build a new satellite-navigation system – not the same one. That will mean new technological developments and innovations as well, which will cause delays.”
According to one estimate, the UK has paid about 1.4 billion euros into the 12-14 billion-euro Galileo programme since 2005.
Estimates for the cost of an indigenous system in the range of £3-5bn were probably right, Mr Paynter said. That was money Dr Bowen told the committee could be better spent elsewhere, filling missing capability gaps in the British space programme.
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