The UK has recently announced a number of new military space initiatives, showing that it is taking this strategic environment seriously. While these are welcome developments, questions persist over the UK’s broader space ambitions.
At the Royal Air Force’s Air and Space Power Conference on 18 July, the keynote speech by the now former Secretary of State for Defence Penny Mordaunt highlighted how the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is intending to scale up its military space activities. This is to be commended and demonstrates that the UK understands the essential nature of space for military operations and national security, as well as the conflicted environment that space has now become. As more actors, both state and commercial, have entered into space activities, and with space now considered by many to be a warfighting domain, orbits are contested and space assets are at risk from a variety of natural and artificial hazards and threats, including anti-satellite capabilities. It is therefore essential that the UK both looks to exploit the opportunities that space provides and works to ensure the sustainability of access for it and its allies.
Building on the UK’s indigenous expertise in small satellite technology, and the successful demonstration in 2018 of the RAF’s Carbonite-2 satellite, which offered full-motion colour video from space, the Government is intending to invest £30 million to create a constellation of small satellites that will be launched within a year. According to Mordaunt, this programme is intended to ‘eventually see live high resolution video beamed directly into the cockpit of our aircraft providing pilots with unprecedented levels of battle awareness’. How long such a capability will take to come into use is debatable, as is how MoD investment into small satellites fits in with ambitions for sovereign launch capability. Nevertheless, it shows progress in ‘planting the acorns from which the future oaks will grow’.
The programme will be led by the newly founded Team ARTEMIS (not to be confused with NASA’s Artemis programme concerned with returning humans to the moon by 2024). Comprised of both UK and US defence personnel, the team will also, in Mordaunt’s words, ‘undertake research into the wider military uses of small satellites’. With the UK dependent on the US for the bulk of its military space capabilities, such international collaboration will likely strengthen the position of the UK, highlighting its expertise and how it can contribute to alliances through additional platforms and plugging capability gaps. The international nature of the space environment is such that no state is immune to its dangers, and cooperation is required both to successfully reap the benefits and respond to the challenges.
The second major space announcement focused on human space travel. The Secretary of State said she wanted to ‘see RAF pilots earning their space wings and flying beyond the stratosphere’. As such, the MoD will work on placing a test pilot into the Virgin Orbit programme. While it could be argued that crewed space travel should not be the priority of a military’s space programme, particularly with more pressing concerns such as securing the safety of satellites from the counterspace capabilities of adversaries and finding a way towards international effort in dealing with the problem of space debris, there is perhaps a wider benefit of this initiative. Space is still not understood widely enough within UK defence, or indeed broader government, so initiatives that can work to inspire personnel will help move space up the agenda.
It is also welcome that recommendations to restructure how space is conceived and developed within defence have been approved. This should see a new ‘two-star’ (major-general rank) director of space within the MoD, supported by both space policy and space capability teams. While current space budgets allocated to the RAF and Joint Forces Command (which is being renamed as Strategic Command) will not be shifted, this does send a signal that space is being understood as a true joint capability. Bringing such work into a central structure will better serve the UK’s three services, all of which are dependent on space, and help to promote better understanding across the defence spectrum.
There are, however, some lingering questions. The long-promised Defence Space Strategy is still to be revealed, leading one to wonder how the new programmes fit into any overarching strategy that is being developed. Individual defence programmes have benefitted but this positive effect is limited without doctrine and strategy that leads activities in a way that promotes effectiveness of action and long-term thinking.
It is also essential that military space plans complement and contribute to wider UK ambitions, working across defence and the civil and commercial sectors for industrial growth and economic benefit. This will of course be open to review with Ben Wallace, the new defence secretary, and time will tell the extent to which this space progress will continue under new leadership.
And despite the debate that has surrounded any UK replacement of the EU’s Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), Galileo, the statement by Boris Johnson in his first speech as prime minister to ‘get going now on our own position navigation and timing satellite and earth observation systems’ does hint that space programmes have support at the highest levels of government.
Increasing activities and capabilities will go some way towards establishing the UK as a military space power, but to have true global influence and remain a valued and trusted partner in alliances, the UK still needs to bring these separate, and at times disparate, activities into a coherent and overarching strategy covering all aspects of defence space.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.