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#SpaceWatchGL Column: UK Space Strategy and the 2020 SDSR: Opportunity costs and spending priorities

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

By Bleddyn E. Bowen

The UK defence policy community is awaiting the 2020 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) and the National Security Strategy (NSS), which were last produced together in 2015. These headline defence and security documents outline what the UK Government and relevant ministries’ agreed view of the military and security threats and risks for the British state. SDSR 2020 could well be a statement of intent for the British military and intelligence services in space, rather than yet another piece of organisational political theatre that has defined much of British space policy in the last 24 months.

The Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, recently implied in a bold interview that Britain may have to consider taking unilateral terrestrial military action without the support of the United States in future. Greater degrees of military unilateralism and British sovereignty will not occur without colossal amounts of spending. Realistically, then, the UK must make hard choices on spending and UK spacepower will have to fight for resources among the terrestrial services. Will the SDSR clarify how UK strategic priorities and threat assessments inform big-budget decisions?

Absent of an actual war and a clear enemy to defeat, strategy documents and statements should be nothing more than the justifications for capability procurements. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has previously said that this 2020 SDSR would go deeper and be far more radical than previous reviews. Many are expecting the cuts to the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) budget to be deep, at least. Pundits and experts will no doubt argue the merits of which of the three services or intelligence agencies should be prioritised for more pieces of the ever-smaller funding pie.

Any expansion of UK space capabilities will require courageous and very public funding decisions to be made and defended, and probably at the expense of other treasured military capabilities. They will inflict significant opportunity costs or trade-offs and require hard decisions whilst the UK Government rearranges the deckchairs of how space strategy and policy is organised in Whitehall.

There is a decent chance of space being given greater prominence than previous SDSR/NSS cycles, which barely mentioned space as a geostrategic environment in its own right. Successive defence ministers have shown a fondness for re-announcing the perpetually delayed Defence Space Strategy (DSS), the creation of a UK Strategic Command in January 2020 which will house some of the MoD’s space capabilities, the appointment of a new Director for Space at the MoD, and the continuing MoD investments in small-satellite Earth observation technologies such as Carbonite-2, NovaSAR, Project Oberon, and rather flippant remarks about a ‘British DARPA’ (the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). 2020 may also see the creation of the National Space Council but details are scant at present, which I have written about previously. Adding to this is the announcement in 2019 of the planned creation of a UK Space Command.

Artist’s impression of the NovaSAR radar imaging satellite. Image courtesy of SSTL.

Yet this motion should not be confused with action. As a scholar and a civilian I do not care who does what as long as good decisions are made and competently implemented. Organisation is moot without accountability, clear direction, and funded procurement decisions from the political masters of the military. What good is a UK Space Command when it has barely any space assets and personnel to command? SDSR 2020 will help show how, if at all, top-level strategic thought in the UK has progressed since 2015. Will the strategic decision-makers have clear justifications and directions on which key space capabilities a more unilateral Britain needs? Or will the SDSR descend into another collection of threat statements, deferring hard procurement and spending decisions to eleventh-hour and inscrutable closed-door meetings in Whitehall? There have been many improvements within the MoD’s conceptual understanding of space with new primers and doctrine documents on military space over the past ten years. Yet these do not address large strategic questions, and nor should they. For outside observers and researchers such as myself, the SDSR, NSS, and elusive DSS will be the best sources we have to scrutinise top-level decision-making on British strategy and military procurement.

Translating the statements of UK ministers on making Britain a more sovereign military power into space means that it must consider which capabilities require additional or new funding and programmes that define top-tier space powers:

  • Launch
  • Satellite Communications (SATCOM)
  • Intelligence, Reconnaissance, Surveillance (ISR)
  • Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS)
  • Space Situational Awareness (SSA)
  • Counterspace

SDSR or the DSS will have to address two kinds of trade-offs that spacepower will require if it is to be expanded. The first are the many trade-offs within spacepower about which capabilities to invest in because some are far more feasible and affordable than others. The second kind are the trade-offs with the terrestrial military capabilities that are also crying out for funding to support maintenance, expansion, and modernisation.

The trade-offs for Britain in investing within spacepower are stark. The most public debacle in British space policy has been the issue of the Galileo replacement UK Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) which has currently used £92 million in public funds on a ‘feasibility study’, with the entire project costing possibly £5 billion to acquire and £1 billion per year to run. Rumours abound of some announcement on this in March 2020. This acquisition is larger in both physical scale and cost than the UK’s Skynet SATCOM system, which itself has been outsourced to private operators. Bringing even Skynet back into the MoD for everyday operations will tax the MoD’s extremely small cadre of trained space personnel. Given the fact that Skynet will likely be targeted in any major war, it makes sense to prioritise the return of SATCOM competency – a secure sovereign operational service that no ally can provide – back to the MoD over a brand new GNSS which will only triplicate services the UK can access from the U.S. and once negotiated, the EU. This will put the UK in the same situation as the U.S. and Norway with regard to Galileo’s military-grade PRS signal. America’s GNSS, the Global Positioning System (GPS), will always remain available to its allies. To deny GPS to allies is a supremely transformational political decision, strategically illiterate, extremely remote.

An artist’s depiction of the UK’s SKYNET-5A military communications satellite. Image courtesy of Airbus Defence and Space.

A gargantuan bureaucratic fight is no doubt brewing if the UK will persist with its GNSS project, as the £5 billion acquisition cost and £1 billion per annum running cost is a massive price tag for the MoD to bear. If indeed it will be payable by the MoD – to date the justifications for the UK GNSS have been military in nature. Are these the trade-offs the MoD wants to make? Will the MoD find an unlikely ally in the Treasury in seeking to prevent the UK GNSS being foisted on it and hollowing out other defence spending priorities?

Compared to the large price tag of a UK GNSS, there are many other areas that could be transformed with even a fraction of its projected cost. Currently the UK is dragging its heels on investing in small-satellite launch capabilities and experimental ISR satellites in low-Earth orbit – we are talking of tens of millions allocated here whilst other states and companies have already invested more. £1 billion could buy you a spaceport and some new constellations – all whilst stimulating privately-successful UK space industry and research and development. Yet these ISR investments will still only be in niche and select areas that must be uniquely suited to terrestrial British military and intelligence requirements. The UK cannot dream to replicate the extensive and varied ISR assets of the U.S., China, and the EU. The same is true for launch: polar launches are feasible from the UK for specific small ISR satellites, but it will not help Britain launch heavier satellites into traditional west-east orbits and at medium-Earth and geosynchronous orbits. We will have to have allies and willing foreign vendors to launch many of our systems, not least the proposed UK GNSS.

SSA is another critical area where relatively modest spacepower funds can make a big difference. The U.S. and EU are significantly enhancing their space observation capabilities, and more data points will be attractive on both sides of the Atlantic, increasing British bargaining power in securing other services and data in return. Indeed, SSA should be a priority for investment if the MoD is to make its personnel operationally responsive to a threatening space environment and adversary action. The UK intelligence agencies would be natural partners to the MoD here as these will involve sensitive information that many branches of government will need, especially in terms of intelligence analysis. If the UK is intent on developing counterspace capabilities, it will be useless without SSA. SSA will tell UK counterspace operators where to actually aim their weapons. Whilst kinetic and orbital hard-kill weapons are out of reach for UK finances, there are many options for soft kill capabilities such as electronic warfare, deception, and cyber intrusions. The UK should prioritise localised SATCOM and ISR jamming countermeasures for terrestrial missions, follow the American template with the Counter Communication System, and do so at a fraction of the cost of the proposed UK GNSS.

An aerial view of RAF Fylingdales in the United Kingdom. Some of its radars have a space situational awareness capability. Photograph courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

Yet the trade-offs of spacepower investment compared to terrestrial needs are just as stark – if not more so. Several billions of pounds can buy more frigates and destroyers for the Royal Navy. Even another aircraft carrier and more escort vessels. The Royal Air Force could have a few more squadrons of fighter aircraft and a massively expanded strategic airlift capacity. The UK could embark on a short-range and cruise missile armament programme to counter adversary air defence and precision-strike systems, or ‘A2/AD’. One courageous suggestion could be to properly fund the Army’s artillery and armour capability to properly defend Britain’s Baltic allies, ensuring that any Russian military presence cannot escalate with heavy bombardment without some serious response in kind by British and NATO heavy artillery and missile bombardment. Such funds can add depth and replaceable assets to terrestrial capabilities as potential adversaries will be able to reliably hit and kill UK forces on the ground.

When billions of pounds are in the offing – thanks to the UK’s flirtation with the GNSS vanity project – many new possibilities for maintaining and even expanding core MoD combat competencies open up. These capabilities could make more of a difference than some space systems. What good is a new ISR capability if all it allows you to see is how badly your soldiers were turfed out of their foxholes by enemy artillery or how quickly your frigates are sunk in remarkable resolution and fidelity?

Compounding that is the chronic personnel recruitment and retention problems in the MoD. More funds could go into attractive salary and pension packages and reforms, as any hardware needs talented people to use them. Recruiting into the space component of the MoD may be especially challenging as the private sector in space is flush with cash and is hiring at an unprecedented rate. Many U.S. space companies will always be able to out-spend British companies and the MoD in terms of recruitment. The pressures on the British technology, engineering, and science graduate workforce are significant, to say the least.

When considering what actual capabilities Britain should spend money on, there are big opportunity costs. With increasing political capital riding on space, I believe I am rather justified in my scepticism over whether SDSR 2020 or the Defence Space Strategy will really get to grips with any of these options in a serious way as serious arguments over spending will not be thrown into the public sphere. I expect the usual platitudes that define most government strategy papers. I can only hope that serious discussions based on capability, trade-offs, and overall priorities are happening, but it is unfortunate that they will continue to happen behind closed doors.

Photograph courtesy of some Welsh bloke.

Dr. Bleddyn Bowen is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Leicester, specialises in space warfare and classical military philosophy, and teaches astropolitics, Cold War history, and modern warfare. Currently Bleddyn is completing his book manuscript provisionally entitled War in Space: Strategy, Spacepower, and Geopolitics, forthcoming with Edinburgh University Press, and convenes the informal research network The Astropolitics Collective.

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