Main Image Credit A system programme analyst at the US Joint Space Operations Centre (JSpOC) at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. While the UK has proven itself an important partner with the US on Space Situational Awareness at the centre, future cooperation with key
The announcement by the Ministry of Defence of a forthcoming Defence Space Strategy paper shows recognition of the threats posed to the UK’s space-enabled military capabilities. The question is how much the strategy will add to understanding the UK’s role as a space power.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) recently held its first Defence Space conference, bringing together the military, government, industry and academia to discuss the MoD’s ambitions in space. This came hot on the heels of the announcement that the government will release a Defence Space Strategy, expected in the summer.
The strategy, as it has been presented, is part of a wider proposed uplift in military space capabilities. The RAF has now assumed command and control of all UK military space operations, and the number of personnel working in space will be increased from 500 to 600. The summary of the strategy outlines three strategic objectives: enhancing space resilience and operational effectiveness; optimising space support to the front line and supporting wider government activities.
The announcement shows that not only has the importance of space to military operations been recognised, but also that the threats to the continued use of space assets are, if not fully understood, at least acknowledged. Full appreciation of the likelihood and severity of these threats needs to be coupled with plans for mitigation and redundancy for the strategy to not only defend satellites but also to ensure that ‘life goes on’ should they be disabled or destroyed.
Both the number and magnitude of threats to space infrastructure, both satellites and ground-based assets, are increasing. They range from the natural, such as space weather, to counterspace capabilities, including high-powered lasers and cyber attacks to disable satellites, being developed by a range of space-faring countries. Space Situational Awareness (SSA), the understanding of the space environment, is necessary to monitor the ever-increasing number of objects, particularly in low earth orbit (LEO), where the potential of a catastrophic escalation of debris, known as the Kessler Syndrome, which can lead to a complete loss of access, is always present. Ground-based aspects of space infrastructure are also at risk from threats such as cyber attacks and extreme weather events. The threats, therefore, are varied, and will require an adaptive and flexible response structure from both from the UK and from the allies on which it relies for much of its space capabilities.
The work that is required to counter each of these threats requires not only technical capability but also international cooperation with allies. In terms of technical capability, this includes hardening of satellites to attacks, advancing research into the prediction of potentially dangerous solar activity, and the development of satellite servicing and debris removal technologies.
International cooperation falls under two categories. The first is working with allies, including the US, Europe, NATO and the Five Eyes countries on space programmes and sharing intelligence. The second revolves around international norms and agreements relating to responsible and non-aggressive behaviour.
Such international cooperation, of course, is not only dependent on the UK’s willingness and capability. While the UK has proven itself to be an important partner, particularly in its relationship with the US on SSA at the US Joint Space Operations Centre (JSpOC) and RAF Fylingdales, much future cooperation with allies will be dependent on how the UK is viewed as a space power. Without sovereign launch capability, for the time being at least, the UK remains a second-tier power, and despite world-leading expertise in areas such as small satellite development, it will need to ensure that it continues to identify what benefits it can bring to these partnerships.
Recognising and understanding the various threats, and how to mitigate and counter them, is only one side of the coin, however, as the usage of and reliance on space goes far beyond traditional defence. Many other aspects of national security utilise information from space on a daily basis, such as the UK’s Home Office, the UK Border Force, and the intelligence agencies. Satellites can be utilised in the fight against organised crime, both at home and abroad. In February 2015, space was designated as Critical National infrastructure (CNI), and as essential for all other CNI, such as communications, transport and energy infrastructure. A full analysis of cross-governmental space usage should feed into the upcoming strategy, as protecting space assets must not be focused purely on those operated by the military, but should also add to the ability of other national security actors to work without interruption.
Such analysis can assist with developing a broad national space policy that encompasses what the UK sees as its future in space, beyond defence and industrial growth. The lack of such an ambition, or at least a cohesive view, is highlighted by the spat between the UK and the European Commission over the UK’s involvement in Galileo, Europe’s Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS). The uncertainty regarding Galileo causes problems not just regarding concerns directly relating to access and involvement in the secure Public Regulated Signal. It also illustrates the questions surrounding who would pay for a UK sovereign GNSS system, and indeed whether the UK space budget should be spent on filling the gaps in capabilities such as surveillance and imagery analysis.
It is hoped that the release of the forthcoming Defence Space Strategy will take all of these issues into consideration. Protecting the UK’s space assets is essential for ongoing security and should in no way be underestimated. It should be a central part of any state’s space strategy. However, on its own it is too reactive and may not go far enough in decreasing reliance on others. Integrating a space defence strategy into a wider, cross-government space ambition can place the UK in a better position to fully exploit the benefits of space, while also working internationally to ensure the continued use of this unique domain.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.