When defence secretary Gavin Williamson announced the UK’s first military space strategy last May, he promised an ambitious plan that would ensure Britain was “primed and ready to deter and counter the intensifying threats to our everyday life that are emerging in space”.
Almost eight months later — and despite promising to deliver the strategy last summer — the UK defence industry is still waiting.
Neil Fraser, a business director for satellite company ViaSat, said there was “concern amongst many of the industry players that the MoD is taking a long time to . . . make the space strategy a reality”.
The problem for Mr Williamson and his military chiefs is that, while everyone at the Ministry of Defence agrees space is now fundamental to the smooth operation of a modern military, there is no consensus over who should be in charge, what capabilities the UK military should have and how much it can afford.
“Sometimes our military has champagne taste but beer money,” added Mr Fraser, a former army officer. “There is a need to leverage private sector investment and technology to make better use of defence finances.”
In an effort to make some progress, Britain’s second most senior military officer, General Sir Gordon Messenger, last month ordered a sweeping audit of Britain’s military space capabilities.
Defence officials said Sir Gordon, a Royal Marine whose role includes oversight of technical military innovation, stepped in after the Royal Air Force, which has responsibility for command and control of UK military space operations, and Joint Forces Command, which directs joint military operations, failed to settle on a vision.
The process was also held up while defence officials finished a review of the UK’s military priorities and capabilities, which will feed into a wider government spending review due in the autumn.
“I wish we could have seen it sooner,” one senior officer said, referring to the space strategy. “You run the risk of it being outdated as soon as it is published. It’s pretty fast moving. We have to future-proof it.”
The MoD said the audit ordered by Sir Gordon would “feed into” the space strategy which is now due to be published in the next few months.
“We are now taking stock of our current space capability and delivering on our commitment to create a dynamic and co-ordinated fighting force across all five domains,” the MoD said.
In a move that signalled Britain’s attempt to prioritise space defence, last year’s MoD review officially classified space for the first time as one of five military domains. The others are land, air, sea and cyber space.
“We live in an age where big countries like the US, Russia and China have invested heavily in space because they know the battle in space will probably be the first battle in any conflict,” said General Richard Barrons, a former commander of the UK’s joint forces. “We are all so dependent on it.”
As military hardware becomes ever more sophisticated it is increasingly reliant on data, secure communications and guidance signals beamed from space.
Protecting those — as well as developing offensive weapons systems — is now so important that in December US President Donald Trump announced a new space command, laying the ground for an American space force.
In the UK, it has not always been clear who should command space. The RAF and Joint Forces Command both make legitimate cases to be in charge.
“There’s always been a presumption it was the air force,” added Sir Richard. “But as space has become fundamental to communications and the data environment, there’s an argument that this is a joint enabling capability.”
The ultimate challenge for the MoD as it wrestles with a potential £15bn hole in its equipment programme over the next decade, is whether it can it really afford to enter the quickening military space race.
“There is a clear recognition of the significance of space but a failure to be clear about what we are and aren’t going to do,” said Ewan Lawson, an analyst at the think-tank, the Royal United Services Institute. “It feels a bit like the orphan child in defence.”
Decisions facing UK military planners
Whoever leads the UK military’s space strategy has some important decisions to make.
The first is whether to commit to funding for a UK sovereign navigation satellite system such as the US-based GPS system after London withdrew from the pan-European Galileo project.
Some £92m has been committed to carry out an 18-month study on a UK alternative but many times this amount would be needed to create a system.
The second question for the MoD is whether to build and launch Britain’s own earth observation satellites, which would allow the military to gather detailed images and video.
Last year the Royal Air Force was involved in the launch of Carbonite-2, a demonstrator satellite built by UK company Surrey Satellites, which will offer full motion colour video from space for the first time.
But launching its own observations system could be prohibitively expensive, defence experts said.
Perhaps the most pressing issue is the need to modernise the UK’s SkyNet 5 system of military communications satellites, some of which are due to go out of service in the early 2020s.
Last summer the MoD awarded European aerospace group Airbus the contract to build one new geostationary satellite — SkyNet 6A — to fill the potential gap in capability before a new group of military telecoms satellites are procured to come into operation in 2025
Several companies, including Airbus and Lockheed Martin, are jostling for a share of the £6bn programme. A contract to service the system from 2022 is also up for grabs.
But industry executives said the MoD needs to decide quickly what sort of coverage it wanted. One executive estimated that covering an area from the Atlantic to the Far East would need four new satellites.