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Why space matters to the United Kingdom

In June, NATO members met and signed a declaration that highlighted the importance of space: ‘We recognise the growing importance of space for the security and prosperity of our nations and for NATO’s deterrence and defence.’ As cyber warfare has become increasingly a cause for concern, attention has turned to the ‘final frontier’ as the ultimate high ground in a hypothetical 21st century conflict. 

Hundreds of billions of pounds of economic activity in the United Kingdom (UK) is supported by space activities, and satellite communication and surveillance are essential to modern warfighting and intelligence gathering capabilities.

In the last few years, Her Majesty’s (HM) Government has increasingly dedicated time and effort towards securing and developing the space sector. Becoming a ‘science and technology superpower’ has been a central pillar of Boris Johnson’s administration, and the Integrated Review has highlighted the essential role that space and spaceborne technologies play in the modern world.

So what are the risks the UK faces in space? Speaking to Matt Chorley on The Times Red Box podcast, Tobias Ellwood MP, Chair of the Defence Select Committee in the House of Commons, said ‘if we lost GPS today, then it would knock us back to the 1950s.’ This is hardly an exaggeration – Britons rely on the United States’ (US) Global Positioning System (GPS) for everything from helping them find their way around a new city to ensuring that deliveries to stores happen on time. Millions of financial transactions that cross the globe would grind to a halt without the precision time-keeping of atomic clocks aboard the satellites. Britain’s ability to launch and target missiles in the event of war would be hamstrung.

Although Russia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have demonstrated their capacity to shoot down satellites, it is unlikely that the UK’s space assets will be targeted physically. Every piece of debris created in space has the chance to hit something and create more debris in an ever-expanding cloud, a devastating process known as the Kessler Effect. Instead, it is far more likely that British (and foreign satellites on which the UK depends) will be vulnerable to hacking from hostile actors that would attempt to shut them down or hijack their communications abilities. 

To combat these risks, a new Space Command was established to oversee and control all of Britain’s military space capabilities at the end of July 2021. It will also direct the Ministry of Defence’s stated goal of a £1.4 billion investment in new space defence technologies over the next ten years. Additionally, it was announced that the US Space Force was interested in constructing one of the three ground stations for a new Deep-space Advanced Radar Capability programme in the United Kingdom, which would drastically enhance the ability to track satellites and other objects in space around Earth.

The UK needs to go further, however. Resilience is an essential facet of a strong and capable presence in space. HM Government is supporting the construction of horizontal and vertical launch facilities in Cornwall, Scotland and Wales, which would allow commercial and military payloads to be placed into orbit far more rapidly. In the event of war or accident, being able to replace key aspects of orbital infrastructure swiftly would help mitigate the damage to the economy and national security.

Fostering Britain’s commercial space sector is also a big step in the right direction. The cost of constructing and launching satellites has drastically fallen in the last decade, and the space sector is estimated to reach a size of nearly $1.5 trillion by 2030. Developing the UK’s ability to construct satellites, the hardware they contain and the products that use them here on Earth would help the country to compete against the economic power of the US and PRC. It also provides a greater pool of specialist engineers, software developers and space experts from which HM Government can draw upon to shape Britain’s defences.

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.

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1 thought on “Why space matters to the United Kingdom”

  1. What an enlightening article. It reaches into an area that so many of us do not even consider. Thanks for highlighting how important this is.

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