Britain must scale up its space ambition

April 23, 2019


In the past few weeks, we’ve seen further proof of a revolution going on in space. India has conducted its first anti-satellite test, the first private moon mission reached its destination, and the first pictures of a black hole were revealed to the world.

As political leaders look for ways of reasserting the UK’s national ambition and drawing the country together after Brexit, this is an area ripe with opportunity. But there is an urgent need to address the lack of awareness and public debate on space, in Whitehall and beyond. This is why, today, Policy Exchange hosts Heather Wilson, the US secretary of the air force, for the launch of the first dedicated space policy unit of any UK think tank.

Ms Wilson’s message to key decision-makers in London comes at a critical moment. Change in space is coming from two directions. First there is the economic-industrial space boom. Since the Cold War space activity has been an elite, costly game. In a few short years, however, new technologies enabling cheap launch and ultrasmall, ultracapable satellites have unlocked the field for a wide range of commercial actors. The possibilities are now endless.

The second big change factor is occurring at the military-strategic level. Space has become a war-fighting domain. As the US defence secretary said recently: “The next major conflict may be won or lost in space.” Within our lifetime space power will become as significant in shaping human affairs as classic geopolitical power.

The good news is that in many ways space is a great British success story, especially considering the comparatively small public investment. Figures published in January indicate a sector worth £14.8 billion, with Britain holding a 5.1 per cent share of the global market. The UK is also a world-leading space science and technology powerhouse and last year announced its first spaceport.

Yet it is increasingly hard to operate a comparatively modest space policy and expect to be a front-rank space player in the long term. UK government spending on space through the UK Space Agency, about £400 million, is one of the lowest among large economies. For comparison, a 2017 report noted that national space agencies of the US, China, Russia, India, Japan, France, Germany and Italy each spend the equivalent of more than £1 billion on space. There is a huge disconnect between the UK’s standing in the world as a leading military and economic power and its comparatively weak position in the space domain.

This suggests a fundamental failing by officials and political leaders in Westminster in particular to grasp the full significance of space power, illustrated by the lack of a dedicated senior minister for space.
This must change. In the next few years Britain faces not only a highly complex and competitive strategic space environment but also immediate questions on how to proceed after leaving the EU-funded Galileo sat-nav project.

It’s time to recognise space power as a critical component of the UK’s grand strategy in the 21st century. The UK’s entire space enterprise and ambition must be scaled up — and that also implies fostering a sense of national endeavour around this issue.

Above all, we need a joined-up vision that connects the economic and industrial aspects to the military-strategic requirements, so that Britain can secure a place among tomorrow’s leading space powers and protect its long-term national interests.

Gabriel Elefteriu is the head of Policy Exchange’s new space policy unit

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