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What Britain’s Defence Space Strategy needs

On 27th September, Her Majesty’s (HM) Government announced its new National Space Strategy (NSS) at the United Kingdom (UK) Space Conference 2021, an event which brings together government and military officials, commercial representatives, and academics. This strategy sets out the framework for bringing government policy in line with the needs of the ever-expanding space sector, and promises to drive innovation, boost growth and develop needed national capabilities.

Although defence is mentioned throughout, much of the detail of what will be involved in securing the UK’s Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) was left out of the NSS and will instead be delivered through an upcoming Defence Space Strategy (DSS). The Ministry of Defence issued a ‘Headlines’ document several years ago outlining the broad priorities of a future DSS. This article will cover many of these Headlines and expand upon them, although several have seemingly been included in the NSS instead.

HM Government has already announced plans to begin launches of small satellites from British soil by 2022. This is an essential foundation for a resilient defence space strategy. The UK is home to several world-leading small satellite manufacturers, and being able to quickly order, construct and launch these will play a major part in enabling resilient space capability. Although much of the Ministry of Defence’s space presence is centred around Skynet observation platforms, being able to replace outdated, damaged or inoperable satellites is a key stepping stone towards greater resilience.

In addition, having a rapid deployment pipeline for new technologies allows the Ministry of Defence to keep its support network for deployed troops around the world at the cutting edge of development. This might take the form of more advanced imaging hardware, hardened communications, or millimetre accurate positioning capability.

This is, however, only one aspect of what the DSS must address. Britain is not a world-leading national space power; instead, it relies on commercial activity to capture a portion of the growing market for space-related technologies and data. If the UK is to make real progress, HM Government needs to implement a National Space Programme which can harness commercial success and direct it into developing new national capabilities that can then be rapidly deployed through Britain’s native launch capability. This would work in tandem with the NSS, promoting innovation and growing the talent pool upon which the Ministry of Defence, UK Space Agency and other organisations can draw upon. 

This is a big part of the recent success enjoyed by the United States’ (US) National Aeronautic and Space Agency (NASA) – putting out contracts and selecting the best proposals from private entities. The US now has one commercial crew spacecraft (SpaceX’s Dragon 2) with another one in the works (Boeing’s Starliner). Although the latter is beset by delays and poor management, the former is an example of how governments can save costs and still receive a needed end-product. HM Government should learn from this example and apply the lessons to defence space contracts going forward; spacecraft do not need to be crewed, but the process can be applied elsewhere.

Building capability is the second aspect of a competent, forward looking DSS. The third and final – for the purposes of this article – aspect is understanding what threats Britain is likely to face in the future. Speaking at the UK Space Conference last week, Mark Flewin, Air Commander and Head of Operations, Plans and Training, United Kingdom Space Command, stated that the richer the picture Britain has of space, the better it will able to act in response to emerging situations. 

This means cooperating with allies, even rival powers, through the United Nations (UN), to create a comprehensive framework for registration of orbital launches and vehicles, a trusted verification process to ensure orbital vehicles are doing what they are supposed to be doing, and ensuring that every space actor has access to detailed space situational awareness information to avoid collisions and space debris. 

Furthermore, the NSS outlines the importance of international collaboration in the space domain, highlighting the work Britain has been putting in at the UN to update the rules and norms of operating in space. The UK has close connections with the US, which is a world-leading space power and equally invested in making space a safe and secure environment for all. The DSS should seek to build on this alliance by deepening our cooperation with America and making the most of this fantastic opportunity to develop our capabilities and benefit from American excellence in the field. 

The US has already expressed an interest in placing a ground station for the Deep Space Advanced Radar Capability programme on British soil, which would enhance British interoperability with the US Space Force and access to much-needed situational awareness data. The European Space Agency, of which Britain is still a member, is a contributor to NASA’s plans to return to the Moon through the Artemis programme. Where appropriate, the UK should seek to build international partnerships with as many like-minded countries that are active in the space domain as possible.

Britain can and should seek to secure itself a leading role in establishing the new ‘rules of the road’ in space. Maritime law has evolved over centuries and elements are now codified in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and is followed by most international actors; and although the US has not ratified the convention, it often follows it in practice. A similar process is now needed for the space domain. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s levelling up agenda and plans to make the UK a ‘science superpower’ are potential springboards for bolstering our space defence policy. While investing in space power is a costly endeavour, the benefits of the NSS and – hopefully – the DSS will strengthen Britain in a more competitive age and stimulate economic growth across the land, particularly in peripheral regions such as Cornwall, Snowdonia and the Outer Hebrides, where the country’s future space ports will be located.

Richard Payne is the Communications Coordinator for the Council on Geostrategy. He holds an MSc in Global Cooperation and Security from the University of Birmingham.

Update: this article was edited on 22/11/21 to clarify the distinction between maritime law and UNCLOS.

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