Britain’s vital strategic interests in space

May 2, 2019

There are thousands of dedicated space professionals in the UK, who, between them, have established a world-class reputation in space science, commercial space and engineering, and in certain national security space operations.

This group of remarkable men and women have until recently, with a few noble exceptions, been let down by a succession of governments who have consistently failed to grasp the importance of space for UK economic, military, technological, and scientific interests at home and abroad, and who have not appreciated space as a domain of global geopolitical and geoeconomic competition in which the UK must assert and defend its interests.

This has to change, and not just because a flourishing sector of British industry needs government to take space more seriously as we look toward a post-Brexit world.

Brexit is forcing politicians to re-examine our interests in space and with whom we partner and co-operate there, as the fallout over the UK’s participation in the European Galileo programme amply demonstrates. This re-examination presents Britain with an opportunity to get back to strategic fundamentals about its interests in space and to consider the creation of an overarching policy framework that will help ensure that those interests are adequately protected. It is therefore very good news that Policy Exchange has set up Westminster’s only independent Space Policy Unit specifically dedicated to this task.

British politicians and officials must first recognise that space is a domain in which UK economic, security, technological, and scientific interests are at stake due to the intense geopolitical competition that is taking place beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. In essence, the UK’s security and competitiveness is bound up in the stability, security, and environmental health of Earth orbit and beyond.

Everything from the British way of warfare (and that of our allies) through to the daily functioning of critical infrastructure, financial networks, and logistics have become dependent upon the predictable and safe operation of hundreds of satellites in orbit.

Recognising space as a domain of geopolitical competition and national importance should then lead to the requirement for the creation of an overarching policy that governs and guides Britain’s interests in space. Among other things, such a policy should also help spotlight where the UK’s interests are most vital and acute, and thus identify capability requirements that should be developed by government, left to the commercial sector, or provided by friends and allies.

A comprehensive UK space policy should take account of British security, commercial, infrastructure, environmental, and scientific concerns, threats, interests, opportunities, and competitiveness. An example of such a policy framework can be found in Britain’s closest ally, the United States, where a comprehensive national space policy is issued with every new administration.

In any case, a comprehensive UK space policy should at the very least account for a number of fundamental space issues. First, reliable and assured options for access to space must be addressed, and should consider a mix of domestic, commercial, and allied capabilities. Without reliable and assured access to space all else is moot, and the UK has a number of choices in how this should be done that ranges from its own launch capability (as announced last year) through to using the launch services of commercial companies such as SpaceX or friends and allies such as the US, India, or Japan.

Second, consider framing guidelines and options for the UK space industrial base that identifies capabilities and requirements vital for assuring British space interests. This is not to advocate for subsidies, but it is a call to systematically and rigorously identify commercial space areas that are essential for economic and strategic interests and find ways to nurture them and make them resilient against domestic and international shocks.

Third, assure space systems through a combination of industrial, military, and diplomatic means. The intense geopolitical competition in space is making the satellites we rely upon more vulnerable to potential attack by adversaries such as Russia. A comprehensive UK space policy should provide guidance on what is permissible under which circumstance using a variety of means separately or in combination to protect invaluable UK satellites in peace, crisis, and war, either alone or in co-operation with friends and allies.

Fourth, Earth observation satellites play a vital role in monitoring and measuring the impact of climate change in Britain and abroad. Given the grave importance of climate change to the British population, its economy, and national security, a comprehensive UK space policy should include provisions for ensuring satellite data is received by British officials and scientists whenever it is required.

Fifth, a comprehensive UK space policy should be framed so as to assure British technological and scientific competitiveness over the coming decades. Certainly not all technology research and scientific endeavour is dependent upon space, but a great deal of it is. Everything from excellence in geophysics and environmental science through to advances in Artificial Intelligence and 3D printing crosscuts with a robust space industrial base and assured access to space.

Finally, a comprehensive UK space policy should undergird our understanding of what is happening in the space domain by setting out the requirement for national space situational awareness (SSA) capabilities, and Britain’s role and participation in global SSA activities. SSA involves the use of land-, sea-, air-, and space-based radars and telescopes that monitor the space environment in order to avoid collisions and maintain vigilance against purposeful interference with British and allied satellites. Without SSA we should be deaf, dumb, and blind in the space domain, and left needlessly vulnerable.

There are a number of reasons for British failure of strategic cognition and neglect in space over the decades. Some of these reasons are practical or the result of conscious policy decisions. For example, in military space the UK has for a number of decades been given access to highly-capable U.S. space systems that enable the British way of warfare through the use of navigation, communications, and high-resolution Earth observation satellites.

Other, less tangible, matters have also intruded upon a clear-eyed policy and strategic understanding of space in the UK. The inability to appreciate the importance of space as a domain of strategic competition, scientific achievement, and commercial opportunity has persisted in British policy circles over the years because there has emerged a similar lack of appreciation about the importance of sea, land, air, and cyber power to UK national interests.

Anyone who doubts this charge need look no further than the parlous state of the Royal Navy and the challenges it will face to secure global trade routes that will be even more vital to British economic and security interests post-Brexit.

British politicians and policy makers are going to discover that geography still very much matters in the post-Brexit world. Further, geography not only matters in navigating the resurgence of great power geopolitical competition in terms of alliances and balancing against hostile powers, but just as importantly in restoring and sustaining British mastery of all strategic domains – often in co-operation with friends and allies – in a meaningful manner as interests and circumstances dictate.

A good place to start to redress this strategic cognitive dissonance and neglect, and to assure Britain’s role as a force for good and prosperity in the 21st Century, is to acknowledge space as a strategic domain vital to UK interests and to develop an enduring comprehensive policy to assure those interests are advanced and defended.

Dr. John B. Sheldon is the Chairman and President of ThorGroup, and an adviser to Policy Exchange’s new Space Policy Unit. He has advised governments in North America, Far East, Europe, and the Middle East on space policy.

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