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British Military Space: Leaked Defence Space Strategy Cites Expanding Threats, Proposes Protective Measures And New Satellites

Great Britain and Ireland. Image courtesy of the European Space Agency.

The UK’s long awaited defence space strategy has been leaked to The Times, one of Britain’s leading newspapers, and reveals a growing acknowledgement of threats against satellites by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and hints at the development and procurement of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) satellites.

The defence space strategy, that was first expected to be unveiled in the summer of 2018, apparently acknowledges threats to British commercial, civil, and military satellites that range from jamming of up-down links and laser dazzling of satellite sensors through to the kinetic destruction of satellites in orbit. According to The Times, the MoD’s defence space strategy proposes measures to protect UK satellites, but the newspaper did not specify what these measures might be.

Still, the MoD’s acknowledgement of space threats, and its focus on space as a strategic domain, represents a significant shift in British defence policy that has until recently treated space as something to be left to allies such as the United States.

According to The Times the defence space strategy cites by name countries it believes possess capability that potentially threaten UK satellites. “Both China and Russia have admitted testing ground-based interceptor missiles that have the potential to target satellites. Such systems will create significant amounts of orbital debris, putting many hundreds of other satellites at risk,” said The Times, quoting the defence space strategy.

“We expect the threat level to continue increasing for the foreseeable future. Our adversaries understand our reliance on space services,” quoted The Times.

Among other details contained in the MoD’s defence space strategy and reported by The Times are the creation of a UK National Space Operations Centre (NSOC) and a role for Defence Intelligence in monitoring and assessing existing and emerging space threats.

It is also claimed that MoD officials have been impressed with the capabilities and performance of the Carbonite-2 video Earth observation satellite built by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) and launched in 2018. According to The Times, the MoD is interested in acquiring an unspecified number of additional Carbonite satellites. Additionally, the UK’s Joint Forces Command (JFC) is said to be looking to procure an unspecified number of ISR satellites to support UK military operations.

The Times reports that the MoD’s defence space strategy “enthusiastically” supports the UK government’s intent to develop its own positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) satellite constellation after its withdrawal from the European Union’s Galileo global navigation satellite system (GNSS) programme in late 2018.

There is still no word, however, as to when the MoD’s defence space strategy might be officially unveiled. The Times speculates that the firing last week of Gavin Williamson by Prime Minister Theresa May, and his subsequent replacement by Penny Mordaunt, will further delay the defence space strategy’s release as she may want to review its contents herself and could make further changes.

In reply to a written question made to the House of Commons on 7 May 2019, Britain’s junior Defence minister Stuart Andrew, MP, said, “The Ministry of Defence is firmly committed to a number of space programmes, and we are assessing our space capabilities, coherence and requirements. Our strategy work on space has developed significantly and will play a key role in Spending Review decisions. we are currently reviewing the right timing for publication of our strategy.”

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