Policy in a Vacuum: Why the UK Needs to Rethink How it Approaches Space

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Recent activity by Russia in space, in the form of a test of an object with the ‘characteristics of a weapon’, was met with condemnation by the US and UK, including statements from Air Vice Marshal Harvey Smyth, Director Space in the Ministry of Defence and the Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace, the latter putting these events and the need to counter them into the context of the upcoming Integrated Review.

This came in addition to the news that the UK government has, as part of a consortium, successfully invested in OneWeb, a company whose aims are to develop a constellation of small satellites in low earth orbit (LEO) for broadband provision, although with the aim of potentially using these satellites to bolster the UK’s access to precise position, navigation and timing (PNT) signals following the arguments surrounding the UK’s participation in Galileo, the EU’s Global Navigation Satellite System.

With the UK also poised to create a Space Command, it is clear that space is being taken more seriously at the higher levels of government, and debates surrounding the UK’s future aims and ambitions in space have become more prominent. However these initiatives develop, the one preliminary conclusion that has emerged from these debates is that a clear roadmap for the future of UK space has been missing for a long time.

Despite being an early national entrant into space, the UK has fallen far behind in terms of the maturity of its space programme. This is not to say that it is not an important actor internationally, nor that it lacks the infrastructure and resources to exploit space and increase both its influence and the control it has over strategically important assets. Rather, it is to suggest that the UK has been unable to develop and implement a national policy towards space that cuts across all of government, exploits and nurtures the indigenous industrial base, and recognises the importance of space for national security. It may seem surprising that this is the case, given the number of strategies and policies that have been published in recent years (including, but not limited to, the 2014 National Space Security Policy, 2015 National Space Policy and 2018 Prosperity from Space Strategy).

As noted above, space has now entered conversations at the highest level of government and the chancellor is set to lead the National Space Council, a forum for cross-government discussion. What, then, is holding the UK back from creating a proper national space policy and becoming a true global space power?

The Problems

Although there are a number of reasons – including a disconnect and lack of dialogue between the military and civil aspects, and a lack of understanding and knowledge among policymakers – the central problem is the way in which space is conceptualised in relation to military, national security, civilian and commercial activities.

Space is often seen as separate, a ‘new frontier’, distinguished from terrestrial activities through the technological requirements and being ‘out of sight’. It is then perceived as more difficult to engage with, leading to its centrality to defence, national security and foreign relations being overlooked and unappreciated. Discussions regarding space policy therefore often happen within a circle of space experts, sometimes at the expense of putting space within these broader contexts.

An example of this needed change in thinking can be seen through considering military space platforms. The designation of space as a new warfighting or operational domain means that military space assets can be seen as one homogenous whole, whereas in reality different assets have different vulnerabilities and their loss will lead to different impacts. Satellites in geosynchronous orbit will face risks that are not the same as those of satellites in LEO, and the loss of a military communications satellite will be felt differently than the loss of a surveillance satellite. The military should therefore not look only at space policy and the protection of space assets, but also at how these assets fit into existing defence architectures, particularly in terms of acquisition.

Similarly, civil satellite programmes should not be seen purely in the context of simply ‘doing space’. While the thinking here does tend to recognise how these programmes could benefit the space industrial sector, indigenous skills base and wider UK prosperity ambitions, they must also be considered in terms of the benefit they can bring to those ambitions likely to be highlighted in the Integrated Review, whether through support to national security or in furthering the UK’s global ambitions. Large national programmes certainly have a role to play in achieving the UK’s aims in space, but their utility must be considered so that they do not become white elephants.

On the other side, there are questions about how the UK wishes to be perceived internationally as a space actor and its role and responsibilities in orbit. The aforementioned Russian activities in orbit are part of what many consider to be the increasing ‘weaponisation’ of space, tying into the US declaration of space as a warfighting domain. A decision will need to be made by the UK as to whether it follows this route, which will have implications for the extent to which it will pursue defensive (and potentially offensive) space capabilities. The UK is also in a strong position to play a leading role in international discussions regarding what it means to be a responsible space actor and associated norms of behaviour. All of these issues will tie into how the UK implements its aims for a ‘Global Britain’, and should not be seen as isolated from the broader context.

The mistake that has been made (and the UK is not alone in this) is that space policy has often been thought to exist, to an extent, in a vacuum. While there is no doubt that ambition regarding space in and of itself has some value, this cannot be what leads the discussion. Policy discussion always need to come back to the question of why: why is space important, why should the UK invest in space and why should certain activities take precedence? Asking these questions will ensure that future policies and strategies will benefit and be a central part of the UK’s defence, national security and foreign relations, while also increasing the UK’s position as a space power.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


Ali Stickings

Associate Fellow; Business Manager for Defence Space at Frazer-Nash Consultancy

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