Main Image Credit Courtesy of Royal Air Force / OGL v3.0
The UK’s new Defence Space Strategy should be viewed primarily as a statement of aspiration, with decisions on capabilities and how to acquire them still to be made.
The Emphasis on Space and Policy Documentation
There has been exceptional government attention on the space sector since the period leading up to the 2021 Integrated Review, with the latest instalment being the Defence Space Strategy (DSS) issued at the beginning of February 2022. This should be read in the context of the National Space Strategy (NSS) published in September 2021 and the UK Space Agency-sponsored Size and Health of the UK Space Industry 2020 issued in May 2021.
These documents signal an enhanced move in UK government defence and security towards commitment to space-based assets. This contrasts with the long-established stance of relying on the US for space capabilities other than global military communications delivered through the Skynet V programme. Unlike France, Germany and Italy, the UK did not commit to military optical, radar or infrared-based satellite surveillance programmes. Historically, the UK had been wary of major space-based investments, even in the civil domain: it abandoned its Blue Streak/Black Arrow rocket programme after four launch attempts, did not join the European Ariane rocket programme and opted not to contribute to the International Space Station. It did, however, get involved in some civil European Space Agency projects, including the Copernicus environment monitoring satellite system in which it still participates. As was well-publicised, leaving the EU meant losing British rights in the Galileo satellite navigation system.
Overall, the DSS has a more measured tone than the NSS, whose introduction by the prime minister referred to ‘Global Britain becoming Galactic Britain’, albeit with an emphasis on working with other governments. Like the Integrated Review, the NSS was marked by unconditional confidence about what could be achieved, containing 124 firm commitments in the form of separate ‘we will’ statements. These include a prediction of ‘launches into orbit from British spaceports from 2022’.
The DSS document is certainly not an industrial strategy: it does not spell out the nature of UK industrial capabilities and support needs, nor the government’s scope of ambition and the routes for its pursuit. It does stress that UK defence needs more of its own space-based assets, but does not spell out which should be of UK origin. A crucial early paragraph in the document says that ‘we will critically assess what capabilities we must own on a sovereign basis, those for which we can collaborate with allies and partners … and those we can access via the commercial market’. The crucial word here is ‘will’, so these assessments have not yet been agreed.
A political steer lies in the governmental commitment in the Ministerial Foreword to ‘freedom of action in this critical domain’. The Defence and Security Industrial Strategy actually said little about the defence element of the UK space industry, but underlined that ‘by 2030, the government’s ambition is for the UK to have the ability to monitor, protect and defend our interests in and through space, using a mixture of national capabilities and burden-sharing partnerships with our allies’. The current international context suggests that the protect element will be the most challenging as means of attacking proliferate.
The document is certainly not an industrial strategy: it does not spell out the nature of UK industrial capabilities and support needs, nor the government’s scope of ambition and the routes for its pursuit
Why the Focus on Space?
This emphasis on space is a function of four factors, only three of which are acknowledged by government.
- First, many aspects of space technology have become less expensive and thus more affordable, which is to be expected given that states have been launching and using satellites in numerous orbits for more than 60 years. Launchers and satellites today are the subject of interest from private sector investors including Elon Musk. In terms of governments, Bahrain, India, Japan, North and South Korea, and the UAE are just a few of the countries with active commercial and defence-relevant space programmes.
- Second, military operations and plans are making ever-increasing use of space assets, not least for the collection, analysis and transmission of a wide range of data and commands. At the same time, because of growing inter-state hostility, particularly between the US and Russia and China, space is being seen as yet another domain for offensive and defensive operations. Any UK effort to attain the operational freedom of action that was seen as the ‘essence of sovereignty’ even in the 2012 National Security Through Technology paper must therefore make some provision for space capabilities.
- A third possible factor, certainly not mentioned in official documentation, is that doubts may be creeping into the minds of some officials and political leaders about the prudence of relying on a changing US for most space-based capabilities.
- Finally, the UK civil space industry, despite only modest government support, has developed effectively and can present itself as a promising candidate for enhanced support.
The UK Space Industry
The scale and nature of the UK space industry on which the DSS will impact is revealed in part by studies commissioned by the UK Space Agency, of which the latest appeared in September 2021 and covered 2018/19. That study exposed that the manufacturing of space systems provided only 13% of the industry’s overall revenue of £16.4 billion (but 20% of its workforce), and the delivery of space operations involving satellites and ground stations provided a further 13%. However, a significant chunk of revenue (45.8%) was generated by Direct-to-Home broadcasting.
Currently, defence is but a small part of the sector’s business, reflecting the traditional Ministry of Defence reliance on others noted above. Defence accounted for 8.6% of the sector’s revenue in 2018/19, compared with the 36% of revenue derived from exports, with the biggest single market being continental Europe.
The sector is dominated by a few large firms but has a large and growing number of small firms: 13 companies accounted for 82% of total space income, 119 firms took the next 13% and 1,086 firms shared the last 5%. If SME involvement is a positive sign and promoter of innovation, the space sector has a good commercial future but, as noted, the defence sector does not loom large in the sights of many businesses.
The UK has a larger, broader and more successful space sector than many people may realise, a sector which to date has owed little to the Ministry of Defence
In terms of the big companies, Airbus UK is the most significant, having bought the former GEC’s (Astrium) space activities and also taken over Surrey Satellites, which had developed notable small satellite expertise. It has UK capabilities for optical, radar and communications satellites, and heads the consortium delivering Skynet V. Obviously, the Airbus parent is an EU-based entity, which also owns a substantial space business in the US, so international collaboration would be high on its agenda. AAC Clyde Space has been identified by the government as having major small satellite expertise, and the company claims that its technology was present on 40% of the 1,000 nanosatellites launched by 2020. This commercially focused firm should actually be seen as transnational, being Swedish and US-owned with operations in both these countries in addition to the UK.
Several of the UK’s established major suppliers have important space capabilities within their overall structures. BAE Systems claims extensive experience in satellite subsystems and technologies, although many of its capabilities are focused in its US business. In 2021 it bought a small UK satellite company (In Space Missions), perhaps reflecting its longer-term ambitions. Rolls-Royce has an active interest in nuclear propulsion systems in space and, along with BAE Systems, is an active shareholder and participant in Reaction Engines, a longstanding UK research firm aimed at enabling launches into space from a conventional runway, but with specific expertise in heat transfer and management. QinetiQ offers a range of space-centred capabilities including small satellite building, which it obtained through its 2005 acquisition of Verhaert Space in Belgium. Babcock International has expertise in the generation and operation of ground stations. Thales (Thales Alenia Space) has facilities in Bristol, Belfast and Harwell which form part of a European company. Thales and Italian firm Leonardo have been in a space alliance since 2005.
The DSS should be viewed primarily as a statement of aspiration and intent, with details of implementation yet to be generated and funded. That choices are still needed on which capabilities need to be British and which could be collaborative underlines the importance of deciding which partners would be best in the collaborative area. The wider UK political discourse tends to stress looking further afield, but the UK space industry itself has defined Brexit-related challenges as ‘the most prevalent obstacle to commercial success’. The NSS includes words of enthusiasm on working with the European Space Agency on a range of civil space fields, but clearly the wider prevalence of UK–European disagreements (including on fish, migration and Northern Ireland) does not provide a supportive context.
Overall, the UK has a larger, broader and more successful space sector than many people may realise, a sector which to date has owed little to the Ministry of Defence. The DSS recognises that the collection and transmission of information through space is becoming ever more central in military thought. The next steps will be to select additional capabilities for British forces and decide how to acquire them. Financially, external observers will be looking to see what provisions are planned for Space Command in the forthcoming Equipment Plan.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Professorial Research Fellow
Defence, Industries and Society