by Dr. Bleddyn Bowen
In March 2021 the UK Ministry of Defence published its Defence Command Paper, ‘Defence in a Competitive Age’ referred to as the DCP, dovetailing the UK Government’s ‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’ referred to as the IR. To much less fanfare a Defence and Security Industrial Strategy, the DSIS, was also released in tandem.
Spacepower has been normalised in standard security/defence/strategy/industrial discourse in Whitehall and in the military/security commentariat. The IR and DCP have enhanced spacepower’s profile in a way that is more befitting of an entire strategic environment where so much critical infrastructure exists. Now the debate on British spacepower has moved on from ‘does the UK need to consider spacepower in security, defence, and foreign policy’ to ‘what can and should the UK do with and about spacepower’. Much of the general thrust on UK space policy and strategy in the IR and DCP is not new in light of the 2014 National Space Security Policy and 2015 National Space Policy – what is new is the prominence given to space in a non-space major policy document..
The DSIS aside, this is a significant mental shift in Whitehall, if it sticks. Unlike previous defence and security reviews in 2015, 2010, and 1998, spacepower is treated as more than just a token novelty mentioned in a few throwaway sentences, passages too bland and vague to draw anything useful from outside of the internal politics of the civil service. Senior people in the British state, security elites, and political classes are no longer scoffing at the notion of UK military space investments and the value of the commercial space industry. Having seen the shift in attitude myself over the past 6 years and how people engage with my area of academic expertise, I can’t over-emphasise the importance of that change enough.
The devil will of course be in the detail but spacepower has had to fight to be recognised and not laughed at. Space is less of ‘a missing link’ in British strategic thought as I argued in my published research in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations in 2018, but there is still much to be done. Disappointingly, space has something of a relatively diminished status in the DSIS given its prominence in the DCP and IR, therefore any specific insight on where the UK Government wishes to direct the UK space industry with regard to defence applications is still unknown at this stage.
On paper at least, the British may have realised it has the potential to do things in space by declaring its intent to be a ‘meaningful’ space actor. This is a refreshingly modest phrase compared to the usually turgid and grandiose language seen in defence reviews and foreign policy papers, where many still have delusions over Britain’s ‘Tier 1’ status in measures of direct economic and military power.
The UK has to live with the fact that other countries have significant areas of strength in space that it cannot match today, and some where it will never be able to match on a unilateral basis. Whilst the UK is not unique in this, other states and organisations are by default spending far more on space, particularly in the civil and commercial sectors. If the UK wishes to make money from the space sector it has to compete with the EU, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, and India, just to name some of the more capable ‘middle space powers’. However, accepting that the UK is a relatively smaller power in space is a difficult pill for many in the political-security elite community to swallow.
Strategy and Resources
There is still a fair amount of uncertainty as to what’s next for UK military spacepower and the thorny questions of whether, and where, actual resources will be committed to meet what strategic and policy priorities have not been sufficiently addressed yet.
The IR promises ‘the first National Space Strategy’ from the National Space Council which will deliberately tie civil and military space plans. This is currently slated for release in autumn 2021. However, something similar was done in 2015 with the National Space Policy. For over three years the UK space policy community has waiting on a UK Defence Space Strategy (DSS) but it is not mentioned at all in the IR or DCP. Has the UK DSS been binned/renamed/expanded under the guise of the NSS? Is the shift in the UK from a DSS to an NSS, which will try to meld military/intelligence and civilian space policies and strategies together, a reflection of an increasing remit of the UK National Space Council? Time will hopefully tell.
The French DSS was recently released in the wider context of the French MoD taking on more military space duties away from the civilian space agency CNES. Furthermore, France only just completed its very first space-oriented war games exercise. Coupled with some statements about more ‘active defence’ systems for satellites and possibly some form of counterspace capabilities as well as a continuing desire to field heavy forces for high-intensity conventional military operations, France is certainly being more pointed in its language and looks set to be a more serious military space power. If the UK is keen to do more in military space, it could do much worse than learn from the French.
The headline sum for science and technology investment in space, cyber, and artificial intelligence from the UK MoD comes to £6.6bn. Of that, $1.4bn will go towards:
- Setting up UK Space Command
- An undefined space-based ISR constellation,
- A National Space Operations Centre
- A Space Academy
Separately to that spending, the Skynet 6 satellite communications programme has begun to modernise from Skynet 4 and 5, at a cost of around £5.2bn. Another interesting headline figure coming from the DSIS is the modernisation of the Bowman tactical battlefield communications system (e.g. terrestrial downlinks and peripherals for deployed forces) under the Morpheus programme, the cost of which is declared at £3.2bn. It is important for policymakers and strategists to remember that not all space technology needs are in space itself.
The MoD is at the formative stage in space: it is setting up structures, experimenting, learning, engaging with externals, and figuring things out. The Aerospace Corporation’s UK division recently announced their award of £500,000 to conduct a one-year study to develop a decision-making framework for MoD space investments. This indicates the very early phases of planning the MoD is at and explains the somewhat vague nature of the IR, DCP, and DSIS in terms of identifying specific ‘new’ areas for defence activity in space.
The UK Space Command (formerly Joint Forces Command) will be responsible for space operations; workforce training; and overseeing all space equipment programmes in the MoD. This was set up formally in April 2021 and will continue to be housed within Air Command at Royal Air Force (RAF) High Wycombe. Counter-intuitively, however, UK Strategic Command (according to the DCP) is responsible for Skynet and space-based ISR operations. Reading the official UK Government web pages for UK Space Command and UK Strategic Command does not seem to clarify who is responsible for what. There does seem to be significant overlap in the way their responsibilities are currently described.
Airbus operates Skynet, but the RAF operates the Fylingdales radar which contributes to Space Situational Awareness (or Space Domain Awareness as the American and the British militaries call it now), as well as the Space Operations Centre at RAF High Wycombe. These three areas are the most meaningful manifestations of UK military space power at the moment. The IR did mention space tracking capabilities as a targeted area for investment, which is a low-hanging fruit in terms of building military and intelligence space capacities for the UK, and building on an existing area of competence as well.
The new Director for Space role at the MoD is just over a year old, and represents ‘the’ MoD view on space across Whitehall and in the National Space Council. Between the Space Directorate, Space Command, and Strategic Command, there is ample scope to clarify, at least in public communications, who is responsible for what. This lack of clarity is not unsurprising in any period of institutional churn with new areas of interest in the context of high-level political support and media coverage.
Expertise about space is an area the MoD needs to develop further, a point I have made consistently in the past. Therefore in principle a ‘Space Academy’ sounds promising but details are scant. The MoD does not have enough space specialists and operational experience in-house, especially compared to some other European states. A lot of UK spacepower Professional Military Education is done with the United States and the UK MoD needs more in-house spacepower education structure. There used to be more provision for this in the 2000s at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, but was phased out many years ago.
Again, the devil will be in the detail in terms of what kinds of space expertise will be developed; ‘space’ is not a skill in itself. After decades of neglect, many in the UK are now realising space is an expertise in its own right and not something that can be addressed by placing ‘and space’ onto a job title.
In the same vein, space-based ISR is a very broad range of technologies and means little without specifying the kinds of ISR types that are desired and to what user needs. This could be a re-announcement of the continuing work with Project Oberon’s small satellite Synthetic Aperture Radar project, or the Carbonite live video satellite platform – both in Low-Earth Orbit. I look forward to seeing the details, because not all ISR systems are equally relevant to the needs of the battlefield.
The UK Government does not seem to have a clear indication of which battlefields the MoD should be preparing to fight on. This will hold back discussions on any major capability investment, and space acquisition is no different. The IR is simultaneously trimming down the heavy and attritional combat capabilities of the British Army whilst emphasising the UK’s commitment to defending NATO allies, particularly in the Baltics, and an increased deployment rate of Army personnel. This is in the midst of a renewed emphasis on a British military presence in across Asia, the Indian Ocean, and the Pacific.
Whatever the terrestrial military focus, the ISR requirements for each are very different. Without a coherent overall defence strategy, it will be difficult to judge whether specific space investments are the correct ones and are worth the opportunity costs. Elaborate and exquisite information and ISR systems that are not properly linked into terrestrial needs may just give you a high-resolution view of your forces getting blown to pieces by enemy artillery and long-range missiles.
With the IR preferring to focus on the Royal Navy and the RAF, there are plenty of opportunities to enhance spacepower provisions for their needs. In general, maritime and air forces are more dependent on space infrastructure to operate efficiently and at full capacity. I believe there are many worthy investments that could be made for the Army too with regard to space, but we need more detail as to what kinds of wars the MoD will be sent to fight before a proper discussion can be had. Still, air defence and close-in weapons systems may be a bigger priority for Army investment than space systems given the proliferation of low-cost uncrewed aerial vehicles and loitering munitions.
A worthy absence here is the now-abandoned project to develop a Galileo-equivalent Global Navigation Satellite System. Instead, the UK Space Agency is now conducting an investigation of what other kinds of Position, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) technologies and services may be feasible to enhance resilience and redundancies for military and civilian resiliency purposes. This is the Space-based PNT Programme (SBPP), but is in its early days and we shall have to wait and see what comes from it. Britain cannot do everything by itself – it has to make hard decisions on where to spend its limited resources.
The DWP mentions threats to space systems but it does not talk about offensive, ‘counterspace’, or anti-satellite capabilities for the UK. This contrasts with the offensive capabilities Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) has in ‘cyber’ or computer network operations. The UK has potential in electronic warfare and cyber intrusions specifically against satellite systems. Any major power today needs to prepare to engage in electronic warfare against enemy space systems, and unlike ‘hard kill’ interceptor systems, hacking into and jamming satellites are a cheaper method of opening up counterspace options for the MoD.
What is particularly welcome is that the IR explicitly says that the UK relies so much on allies for space infrastructure. It is encouraging that EU’s Copernicus and NATO space initiatives are mentioned prominently and underscores the integrated nature of UK spacepower in most areas. The UK is still a significant economic actor in space but it must accept its position in a multilateral European context, accepting that other European states can bring more unilateral assets to help the US military than the UK can.
Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of references throughout the IR and DCP on shaping norms and rules in space given the UK’s drive at the United Nations with Resolution 75/36 on ‘Reducing space threats through norms, rules, and principles of responsible behaviours’. It remains to be seen if the UNGA Resolution gets anywhere beyond the previously failed efforts as submissions to the UN Secretary-General arrive in May. However, it does seem that the ground-up multilateral approach of this resolution has been well-received.
Spacepower is here
From the space perspective, there is nothing particularly unexpected, new, or unwelcome in the IR, DCP, or DSIS, not least because the details are quite thin in many areas. Several headline figures and announcements have been announced previously, or are continuing existing projects. The NSS seems to have displaced the DSS, and that is arguably the most interesting thing for those of us reading the tealeaves of the MoD’s trajectory in space. The development of the Space Academy is something that I’ll be keenly following given my academic profession, pedagogically-oriented publications, and past experience in working within Professional Military Education.
This is, however, another demonstration of how there has been a mental shift among the military and political elites in the British state and the Westminster security-industrial ecosystem. Spacepower is ‘in the room’ in a way it was not before. The arguments are now about what to do about spacepower, not whether it should be a topic of discussion at all. In the United States, it seems that the creation of the Space Force has triggered a surge of space-centred activity from the larger of the Washington-based think tanks. Whilst this mental shift on spacepower seems to be the culmination of over a decade of increased space awareness in Whitehall, it remains on paper at this point. The big discussions over the tangible, resourced investments on UK military space are only just beginning.
Dr Bleddyn Bowen is Lecturer in International Relations at the School of History, Politics, and International Relations at the University of Leicester, UK. As well as undergraduate and postgraduate teaching, he convenes a Continuing Professional Development Course on Space Security. He is the author of War in Space: Strategy, Spacepower, Geopolitics published by Edinburgh University Press. Bleddyn has published research in several peer-reviewed journals, and is a regular columnist for SpaceWatch.Global. He frequently presents to and advises practitioners including civilian and military personnel and agencies in the UK and internationally on military, intelligence and strategic space policy issues. He frequently appears in media reports and news items on space policy and the politics of outer space as an expert source. You can find his professional profile here and his personal website here. He can be found on Twitter via the handle @bleddb