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Space power and national strategy

The role played by Starlink and other satellite systems – both military and commercial – in supporting Ukraine’s valiant defence against Russian aggression has placed space capabilities in the limelight like never before. This demonstration of space’s influence on major geostrategic events will produce a step-change in how policy-makers view this domain. No prudent long-term vision for British grand strategy over the coming decades can ignore the role of space power in global affairs and its relation to the national interest. 

The topic requires serious attention, and the starting point is to recognise that even before Russia’s renewed offensive against Ukraine a true ‘Revolution in Space Affairs’ had been underway. Its dynamics are bringing qualitative changes to the military-economic space environment. On a conceptual level, a narrower equivalent notion is the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ which marked the advent of precision warfare. But the developments in space affairs are opening a new chapter at the systemic level for this domain as a whole.

A new centre of gravity

This ongoing transformation is driven by new technologies that enable cheap launch and ultra-small, ultra-capable satellites that in a few short years have unlocked the field for a wide range of commercial actors. One first-order consequence is a sustained economic boom that is on track to turn space activities into a major component of the global economy on its own terms. The global space market is forecast to grow to US$1.25 trillion (£1 trillion) by 2030 (it is around US$470 billion (£318 billion) today), across all segments from rockets to space-data apps.

A second macro trend already in motion, which will become clearer in the coming years, is a gradual convergence of ‘Earth’ and space affairs. The reliance of advanced economies and armed forces on space-enabled services and capabilities is well established; it will only grow with time. But something qualitatively new is happening. From a systemic standpoint, space capability is no longer only vertically integrated into national programmes and services; it is no longer a ‘separate’ – let alone marginal – element among others in the national power-mix, but is becoming central to it.

Possibly the single biggest technological and economic trend in the space market of our era is the progressive and deep intertwining of the Internet (or digital) economy with space-derived ‘Big Data’ which is, increasingly, a critical input to most digitally-enabled sectors on the ground. A self-reinforcing evolutionary feedback loop has therefore emerged between human activity on earth and the systems we deploy in space: they drive each other both in terms of economic value and in terms of mutual dependency. 

The implications are profound: whereas space has hitherto been an enabler, and adjunct to the instruments of government and the functioning of modern society, it is now morphing into a core aspect of national infrastructure and into a ‘centre of gravity’ in its own right. This is a strategic convergence with far-reaching consequences, placing a premium on space power in the geopolitics of the future – especially for major players in the international system like the United Kingdom (UK).

Indeed, as the military balance evolves, there is also increasing recognition that future wars could be won or lost in space – a new calculation for strategic thinkers. While the pace, sequencing and impact of this convergence across the world remains a matter of debate, the point is that this process is now in motion and will continue over the next decades and beyond.

Military and geopolitical impact

Such questions on the development of space power are at the very edge of strategic theory, and, admittedly, are poorly understood and controversial even within the expert community. It is still a novel area, particularly from a policy standpoint. 

What is clear is that in the next couple of decades the impact of space power in the military field in particular will outstrip anything we have experienced so far. From a technology standpoint we can already envisage linking up various separate orbital capabilities into permanent, seamless space infrastructures that generate space-derived ‘Big Data’. For example, on average, the United States (US) Space Force can currently image any point on the globe around five times a day; in the not too distant future this will likely be possible five times a second, with far-reaching implications for military operations.

Space power is also integrated with virtually all novel advances in strategic military capabilities, for example hypersonic weapons, which are expected to have a critical impact on future warfare. Both their employment and the defence against them will depend heavily on space-based systems for tracking and strategic targeting, such as the Pentagon’s National Defense Space Architecture being built by the US Space Development Agency. 

Another emerging strategic space capability are spaceplanes, of which the American X37B is only an early example. These offer the prospect of orbital manoeuvre and entire fleets of such vehicles will likely be deployed in the future – in this respect, military space power theory is now where air power theory was around the First World War. Incidentally, the area of spaceplane research and development is one where Britain may hold a distinct advantage through the unique hybrid rocket-jet engine technology being developed by Reaction Engines Limited.

Over the past few years in particular – even before the return of inter-state war in Europe in 2022 – it has become clear that we have entered a new period of space nationalism, where the view of governments across the world on space is hardening. This is the result of increased global strategic competition overall, and of the kinds of trends described above which are turning space power into a component of national power. Such a hardening of views has led to space being declared a warfighting domain by all key players, to more spending, and to a renewed focus on sovereign capabilities and national interests in this area.

In practice space has already become an instrument of state power in its own right. As early as 2016, a Chinese white paper on space activities formally articulated the concept of a Space Silk Road, with plans to establish a ‘Belt and Road Initiative [BRI] Space Information Corridor’. It includes: ‘earth observation, communications and broadcasting, navigation and positioning, and other types of satellite-related development; ground and application system construction; and application product development.’ This is an integrated vision comprising a physical infrastructure in orbit that enables services paired with a whole space applications ecosystem on Earth. 

By signing up to the ‘Space Information Corridor’, states participating in the BRI would become dependent on Chinese-provided space services such as BeiDou, Beijing’s version of America’s Global Positioning System (GPS). This has already produced counter-balancing behaviour from India, for example, through its own version of space-driven foreign development assistance – the building of large ground stations in a number of South Asian countries to improve and expand satellite coverage, all linked to India’s own space infrastructure.

A greater focus on space

Such deployment of space power in pursuit of geopolitical influence is only an early manifestation of the type of behaviour that will become increasingly widespread. The strategic synergies between space power and other domains of national power are bound to increase, but exploiting them requires deep understanding, a vision, and sovereign capabilities. 

In this context, for the UK, the early adoption of a national ‘space-power mindset’ (and the means to bring it into effect) is a prudent response to the disruptive challenges of the coming decades – and indeed this is what all of Britain’s peers are doing. One important conceptual step in this direction at a time when war is forcing strategic reappraisals across the board is to decide whether space is marginal or central to the UK’s national interest – it is a foundational question. 

The marginal view of space is a strategic dead-end. It essentially represents the status quo, the continuation of the traditional British model of space policy that sees the government’s role, by and large, as a convener and facilitator for industry rather than its driving force. This paradigm has been in operation since the 1970s when Britain’s original – and successful – space launch programme was terminated on account of insufficient ‘value for money’. Even today the essential purpose of the UK’s space policy is to ‘add value’ – in military space, this refers to adding value to other allies’ space capabilities, particularly the US – and ‘benefit the economy’. 

This model is unsustainable in military and industrial terms given we are now in an age of high-powered space competition. The vision of a Global Britain operating as a fully sovereign actor in the international system requires the UK to be a leading space nation standing on its own feet, and is incompatible with being a subordinate actor dependent on others when it comes to a core power dimension like space.

But re-defining space as central to Britain’s national interest requires real ambition and reform. At present there is a huge disconnect between the UK’s standing in the world as an economic, diplomatic and military power and its position in the space domain: as the House of Commons Defence Select Committee noted recently, Britain’s spending on space ranks in the bottom half among G20 nations. This must change and space must be embedded in the UK’s long-term grand strategy, with an explicit purpose of making Britain into a leading space nation in the 21st century. 

What is most needed at this stage in order to place Britain on a trajectory to becoming a space power is renewed high-level political focus and leadership on this vital policy area. Restoring the National Space Council as a Cabinet Committee would be a good start.

Gabriel Elefteriu FRAeS is Deputy Director (Defence and Space Policy) at the Council on Geostrategy.

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