A Beam in the US Eye

Friendly competition for money and influence has become as central to the ties between the US and European Union as cooperation. Indeed, rivalry between the world's two largest economies is quite expected, whether it's Boeing versus Airbus, the euro versus the dollar, or Ariane versus NASA rockets.

One major reason that EU leaders try to rally member states to cooperate on big projects is Europe's insecurity over US domination, from Microsoft to Hollywood to the Internet. In military technology, especially, the EU is struggling to match the US but so far remains in awe of and dependent upon the Pentagon's high-tech global reach.

Last March, however, EU members decided to launch - literally - a direct challenge to the Pentagon-controlled Global Positioning System (GPS) by agreeing to set up their own satellite navigation system, Galileo (no relation to NASA's space probe to Jupiter.

GPS works by sending signals from a constellation of satellites to help ships, cars, planes, missiles, and even hikers locate themselves on the Earth's surface. This tracking system has become indispensible for many military and commercial uses. But the GPS creates just the kind of dependency on the US that the EU wants to break in order to have a louder voice in world affairs. No wonder China has decided to help pay for about one-fifth of the Galileo satellite tracking system, whose technology is supposed to be more accurate and reliable than that of the current GPS.

The US says a new system isn't needed, since it's upgrading the GPS by 2012, but it doesn't openly oppose the EU project. Rather it complains that Galileo's special frequency could be cracked by terrorists or enemy states to alter the launch paths of missiles and would overlap with GPS signals. The EU claims its signals can be made secure.

This competition over setting a global standard in a new technology can be healthy up to a point. But the US has a difficult choice - whether to cooperate with Galileo or oppose it at every step. At the least, the EU can work to satisfy the US on its technical complaints over security. But Washington shouldn't be especially concerned about this strategic rivalry with its main allies. Galileo just might prove to be a better way to navigate.

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