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To boldly go? UK aims to boost defence capabilities in space


Aug 22, 2022

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Tom Hunter


4 min read

The government’s first full Defence Space Strategy will not rocket the United Kingdom to the front of the space arms race, but it promises to be a launch pad for developing new satellite capabilities and domestic know-how in an increasingly important military domain.

Last November Russia drew international criticism after it blew up one of its defunct satellites with a missile, creating a debris field that endangered the International Space Station and satellites in low-earth orbit (LEO). Moscow’s deployment of an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon was an explosive reminder of a space arms race dominated by a small group of nations with big ambitions and budgets to match.

Although space technology plays a key role in various areas of British life, the UK has long trailed superpowers like the United States and China and even European allies like France in developing military capabilities in space. The Defence Space Strategy (DSS) sets out to change that, with a mission to invest £1.4bn over the next decade to become a “meaningful actor in space” and work with allies to keep space safe, secure and sustainable.

“UK has long trailed superpowers like the United States and China and even European allies like France in developing military capabilities in space”

“The DSS reflects and reinforces a growing recognition of the importance of space in Whitehall,” Dr Bleddyn Bowen, lecturer in space politics at the University of Leicester, told The House, adding that the document had helped to educate the wider political, military and media ecosystem.

The big-ticket item in the DSS is £970m for the ISTARI programme to develop the UK’s next generation of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) satellite capabilities. The government has since confirmed that Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) –which creates three-dimensional reconstructions of objects, such as landscapes, to provide finer images for tactical use – will also have a significant role.

Other investments include £145m for so-called space control – or “space warfare” capabilities – a modest sum but one that acknowledges the UK’s role as smaller space power, with its warfare options mostly limited to computer network and electronics attacks.

There is also £135m to recruit, train and retain defence personnel to work in the space domain, primarily through UK Space Command (UKSC) and the UK Space Operations Centre (SpOC). It also commits £61m to the Titania laser communications R&D programme, which aims to increase data bandwidth between satellites and Earth, and £85m for the UK’s own Space Domain Awareness (SDA) capabilities for detecting and monitoring objects in orbit, allowing it to move away from a reliance on the US. France’s dedicated military SDA system – GRAVES – has been in operation since 2005.

However, even added to the £5bn the government has already committed to upgrade its Skynet satellite communications capability, the DSS investment represents a relatively modest sum by international standards. Although the figure is large for the UK Ministry of Defence, it is only a fraction of the US’s $24.5bn (£20.23bn) total space budget for next fiscal year

“If the UK government wants Britain to develop into a serious space power in the 21st century…then the MoD should receive several more such cash injections for space in the coming years,” Gabriel Elefteriu, Director of Space at Policy Exchange, said in an analysis shortly after the DSS launch in February.

The UK’s relatively small budget means working with allies and the private sector will be key. It has proposed a United Nations Resolution on reducing space threats through responsible behaviour, and has committed to continuing to work with the European Space Agency (ESA).

This year will also see the MoD playing a role in the payload and launch of the first satellite into orbit from a launchpad on British soil, a significant milestone in developing its own space capabilities.

“As space power is not an overnight phenomenon, there’s plenty of room to grow, especially in what has already been established,” Julia Balm, space security expert at King’s College London, told The House. “The DSS sets out this intentional step towards building a more cohesive future for UK space defence.”

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