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The UK's recently published National Space Strategy is a welcome assessment of the country's current capabilities, but plans for future endeavours are thin on detail.
At the end of last month, the first-ever UK National Space Strategy (NSS) was published. The 42-page document sets out the government’s vision for its engagement with space from a host of different angles, including science, technology and defence. Its publication has been long-awaited, not least since it was initially promised for 2018.
However, the paper may not have met expectations. The strategy, while a realistic assessment of current British capabilities, charts future endeavours into space in broad terms rather than as a detailed plan. Perhaps we will have to hold our breath a little longer – for the Comprehensive Spending Review at the end of October, which should reveal more about the distribution of financing for the sector, as well as the Defence Space Strategy, set to be released later this year, to set out capability priorities and the details of how the space sector will be integrated into current defence capabilities. These two documents should be our first indicators of just how far the British engagement will really stretch.
The just-published strategy paper focuses mainly on industry and the domain’s tie-ins to civil society, thereby not revealing many surprises. It sets out the UK’s vision for its use of space, followed by the goals, the ways to achieve those goals and the 10-point plan – which sets out ‘key interventions’. Key points of the strategy include financing of space-focused businesses, such as private funding through venture capital funds, partnerships and scientific focus points.
Overall, the NSS provides evidence of a crucial thinking exercise conducted within government. It shows that the UK has taken stock of its current capabilities, conducted a realistic assessment of what can be achieved and thought about where it wants to be in the next decade. This is a welcome development and much needed – the space sector is expanding rapidly, our everyday lives are increasingly dependent on the domain and new ISR capabilities now demand huge quantities of data, which can only be supplied by corresponding technologies in space.
While the list of space capability priorities is long (eight are named), it is good to see the assessment of which can be achieved independently and which will require collaboration with others, such as the UK’s Earth-observation capability, which is set to benefit from Copernicus, an EU programme. Other partnerships mentioned are the UK–Australia ‘space bridge’, which will allow the two countries to cooperate in the realm of space and share future opportunities, and the UK’s continuing commitment to the European Space Agency (ESA), with which it promises to build a rover to bring back samples from Mars. Bilateral partnerships further include projects with NASA and JAXA, the Japanese space agency. The focus on European partnerships is heartening to see – ESA being a crucial player in the European space realm, created so that European states can pool their resources. As an intergovernmental organisation that is separate from the EU, Brexit should not affect the UK’s involvement. Cooperation between the two simply makes sense and it is entirely unproductive for the UK to distance itself from the organisation for political reasons.
On the whole, multilateral partnerships are not just useful in that they save the duplication of resources and capabilities where they can easily be shared; they also present a good opportunity for public diplomacy. Further, they allow the UK to leapfrog – as the strategy acknowledges, the UK is currently lagging behind its European partners in civil expenditure in the sector and can therefore benefit by cooperating with partners.
The wording of the document is simply too vague, with specific details and tangible action plans few and far between.
One of the few specific figures provided is the investment in the Defence Space Portfolio – £5 billion over 10 years in satellite communications and £1.4 billion in other space technologies and capabilities. Another is the plan to launch a small satellite in 2022 – as part of the aim to become a leader in commercial small-satellite launches.
The lack of detail prompts the concern that the government’s motivation for showcasing its plan for space is exactly that – a display exercise for a domain that has become a global hot topic
The implementation chapter of the strategy starts with a timeline of the four phases, wonderfully termed ‘countdown phase’ (the next three months), ‘ignition phase’ (the next year), ‘thrust phase’ (2023–30) and ‘orbit phase’ (2030 and beyond). As substantial as a timeline may seem at first sight, the actions reserved in each phase are rarely tangible enough for industry and the wider space community to be able to hold the government to account over the next nine years.
The Future of UK Space
Given this lack of detail, the strategy brings little news to those who have been following the UK space debate and at points it simply confirms what was already known. An overarching document on the broader thinking on UK space capabilities is certainly useful and a realistic assessment of existing capabilities is very welcome. However, the strategy has left industry and researchers hungry for more details, some of which will be revealed in the Defence Space Strategy, and the allocation for the sector as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review. The lack of detail prompts the concern that the government’s motivation for showcasing its plan for space is exactly that – a display exercise for a domain that has become a global hot topic. It seems that the true level of commitment to the sector is unlikely to become apparent until practical actions are taken – starting with the promised small-satellite launch in 2022.
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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Research Analyst and Policy Lead