Public Affairs & Government Relations

FTI Consulting Public Affairs Snapshot – UK Space Command: Reaching for the Stars

The official launch of the UK’s Space Command has signalled the Government’s intention to increase its focus on military threats in the space domain. FTI Consulting’s Public Affairs team assesses the new Command and what it means for UK defence.

The UK will instead seek to achieve a position of strength as part of a larger alliance through the US and NATO. This will involve developing enough capability to “monitor” space and defend its own and allied critical infrastructure, whilst at the same time focusing on where the UK has traditionally punched above its weight; taking a leading role in promoting the creation of international norms around the behaviour of states in this domain, as the limits of the historic Outer Space Treaty – an agreement which represents the legal framework for international space law –  continue to be tested. That however is easier said than done and international norms that reflect the 21st Century reliance on spaced-based technologies remain distant.

One Small Step for Defence, One Giant Leap for the Taxpayer

In March, the Government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (IR) and associated Defence Command Paper (DCP) placed a new strategic focus on space, emphasising  its importance in defending the realm. In this regard, with space and other domains the IR did well to follow the words of Neil Armstrong, namely “we always need to prepare ourselves for the unexpected.”

“By 2030, the Government’s ambition is for the UK to have the ability to monitor, protect and defend our interests in and through space, using a mixture of national capabilities and burden sharing partnerships with our allies.”

Defence in a Competitive Age [Defence Command Paper], March 2021

To support this shift, the Government intends to deliver the SKYNET 6 secure satellite communications programme; invest an estimated £5 billion over the next 10 years to recapitalise and enhance satellite communication capabilities; and spend an additional £1.4 billion on space over the next decade to: establish Space Command; enhance space domain awareness; develop a UK-built Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) satellite constellation; and create a Space Academy to develop the skills required of the defence space specialists of the future. Investment in space will also be bolstered by the wider increase in defence funding of £24 billion over the next four years.

Space Command itself, under Air Vice Marshal Paul Godfrey, will oversee space capability development in the Ministry of Defence across three main areas; space operations; space workforce training and growth; and space capability to develop and deliver equipment programmes. Drawing from all three arms of the armed forces, the Command will control the UK’s Space Operations Centre, RAF Fylingdales, SKYNET, and other enabling capabilities. Nevertheless, unlike the much-vaunted US Space Force launched  by President Trump in December 2019, the UK’s Space Command does not establish a new branch of the armed forces.

The specific funding breakdown for the UK Space Command remains unclear and, whilst the remit is ambitious, £1.4 billion spread out over a 10-year period appears at first as setting ambitions low. This is particularly evident when compared to the capabilities being developed by Russia in the kinetic and non-kinetic counterspace realm, with estimates suggesting an almost identical level of funding in the region of $1.6 billion for Russia’s entire military space programme. Nonetheless, the level of public investment by the UK Government is large enough to encourage accompanying private investment in space capabilities.

The UK’s Place in Space

Despite the increasing reliance on satellite technology in every domain of operations, the armed forces remain highly dependent upon the United States for military support in space, with SKYNET 5 one of the few extant sovereign assets under UK control. In establishing Space Command, MOD has provided a level of strategic direction toward building the future of UK space capability, as set out in the IR and DCP. The RAF’s Director of Space, Air Vice Marshal Harv Smyth, has outlined specific areas of UK development including interactions between small satellites in low-earth orbit (LEO) and large geostationary satellites, alternative methods of geo-positioning, optical communications, and on-orbit artificial intelligence.

Though the UK’s armed forces will inevitably remain reliant on allies to support its space-derived capability requirements, with Space Command, it is apparent that the UK is attempting to find a sweet spot where limited funds can be used to complement allied capability, thereby ensuring continued access into the future.

“The UK does not have a decision about whether it wants to fight in space…that is really up to Russia and China, quite frankly, and they have made it pretty clear where they fall on that.”

Todd Harrison, Director, Aerospace Security Project, Center for Strategic and International Studies

We should not forget that it is only in coordination with allies that the UK can hope to counter the growing threat to these assets and the services they provide. China’s counterspace capabilities, including missile-based and co-orbital anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities warn of growing threats within the domain itself. Similarly, Russia has long invested in its own ASAT capabilities. This is a picture complicated yet further as adversaries across the world increasingly focus on non-kinetic capabilities, allowing them to operate in the “grey zone” just below the threshold of full-scale conflict.

The UK will instead seek to achieve a position of strength as part of a larger alliance through the US and NATO. This will involve developing enough capability to “monitor” space and defend its own and allied critical infrastructure, whilst at the same time focusing on where the UK has traditionally punched above its weight; taking a leading role in promoting the creation of international norms around the behaviour of states in this domain, as the limits of the historic Outer Space Treaty – an agreement which represents the legal framework for international space law –  continue to be tested. That however is easier said than done and international norms that reflect the 21st Century reliance on spaced-based technologies remain distant.

Implications for the Defence Industry

In the immediate term, it will take time for the significance and true strategic purpose of Space Command to become clear. The IR and DCP do well to solidify the Government’s thinking on emerging technological threats. However, whether the Government intends to fully fund the capabilities required to meet such a threat remains unclear

Certainty is delivered, nonetheless, in those areas where the Government is clearly intent on further development, including low-earth orbit satellite technology, position, navigation and timing (PNT) technology, high-security communications and artificial intelligence. Indeed, it seems to be the intent of the Government to focus on existing strengths and back those technology areas where UK industry is already world-leading, with many traditional defence suppliers increasingly seeing opportunity in this area, supported by an equally capable supply chain. This already buys the Government its seat at the table among the space-faring nations, and more broadly will only serve to benefit the wider science and technology, innovation, and levelling up agendas.

Conclusion

Cutbacks in conventional forces whilst increasing investment in technological capabilities leads to an interesting tension between the need to invest in the latter and obvious and growing pressures on the former. This will no doubt be the debate that  dominates over the next decade as the MOD invests in Space Command. Much of that argument of course rests on perceptions of how well resourced the traditional functions of the armed forces continue to be.

However, the UK has the advantage of existing strengthsn specific but vital areas of satellite technology that supports its wider strategic alliances in the space domain. That gives Space Command a significant head start as it seeks to establish itself. But as we have learned with previous defence reviews, actions must speak louder than words.

 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of FTI Consulting, its management, its subsidiaries, its affiliates, or its other professionals.

©2021 FTI Consulting, Inc. All rights reserved. www.fticonsulting.com

 

Related Articles

January 14, 2022

FTI Consulting News Bytes – 14th January 2022

Welcome to FTI Consulting News Bytes – a roundup of top tech stories of the week from FTI Consulting’s TMT (Telecom,...

January 13, 2022

FTI Consulting Public Affairs Snapshot: To CBDC or not to CBDC?

The Mesopotamian shekel is often cited as the first form of money, initially representing a specific weight of barley, a...

January 13, 2022

ESG+ Newsletter – 13th January 2022

Your weekly updates on ESG and more Greetings from 2022! Our first ESG+ Newsletter of the year starts off with a review ...