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A 'Meaningful Space' in the Integrated Review

This essay was first published in October 2021, in the second volume of the Centre for Defence Studies series on The Integrated Review in Context: Defence and Security in Focus.

In 2020, the UK found itself shaken by a global pandemic, confronted by Brexit realities, subsequent restructuring, increased national debt, and a revitalized discourse on how to build a stronger national posture in spite of this all. Space, a domain which had been overlooked in previous defence reviews, has now been formally recognized in the 2021 Integrated Review (IR) as a tool for growth and development in a UK defending interests, sovereignty, and infrastructure.

Space assets have long lacked visibility in defence discourse, an overlook of both increasing military and government operations as well as the broader uses of space systems for every digital user across the UK. – Julia Balm

This increasing reliance on space assets has developed into a critical infrastructure in need of adequate defence and a strategy that befits the mercurial environment of UK space power today.

The inclusion of space in the 2021 Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy indicates a significant and growing commitment to include space as a critical operational domain alongside land, air, maritime and cyber. Building off this integration of the space domain with other traditional domains, there was also mention of integration between activities within the UK space sector from civil to commercial to military and government operations.

As the UK is pouring more focus and energy into a cohesive space sector, demonstrably more motivated and prioritized than ever before, Whitehall’s recent assessment shifted space power focus from a minor role of merely sitting at the table to a role that’s found a pivotal voice at the table. Evaluating previous defence reviews, space has only ever played a minor role in these discourses. Mentions of space as critical infrastructure are recent and most notable for instance in the 2014 National Space Security Policy with recognition that ‘space-based capabilities support the provision of vital services for our economy and national security’, and in the 2019 Queen’s Speech committing to making the UK a global science superpower with a commanding lead in space.

The Integrated Review however is the first large scale review to directly mention the integral nature of space operations in relation to other domains as one of parallel importance.– Julia Balm

The notion of responsibility surfaced as a highlight of the IR as the UK intends to take a leading role in this direction. Norms, rules, principles of responsible behaviours in space therefore guiding the UK to not only tread new developments on the right foot but to also work towards shaping a global approach that encourages sustainable and responsible uses of space. This builds off the 2020 UN General Assembly resolution on ‘Reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours’ in which the UK ‘demonstrated global leadership on reducing space threats’ by ‘working with like minded nations’. While working with like minded nations in developing a responsibility framework is encouraging for an international debate, ensuring an understanding of diverse motivations in space and establishing shared language on what exactly defines responsibility to diverse actors is just as critical to this debate, especially for a UK moving forward as a global leader in space responsibility. As the IR declared UK intention to ‘create shared rules in frontiers such as cyberspace and space’, fruitful discussions on the limits of today’s broad treaties will hopefully lead to more stabilization as well as increased transparency on otherwise opaque space activities that may lead to denial or degradation of high dependency assets.

A critical point for a space power expanding development and sector growth is a point of declaring clear intention and direction. In the 2021 Integrated Review, this intention to become a ‘meaningful actor in space’ became clear. Being a ‘meaningful’ space actor implies that actions in the direction of sector growth will be taken only if they mean something critical to the UK. Because, while it’s exciting to plate significant ambitions in the IR, there is only so much a space power can palate when seeking sustainable growth that can stand strong amidst fluctuating politico-economic conditions. Sober assessments of UK capabilities make realistic the ever-increasing space ambitions in order to leverage a strategic edge through science and technology.

While sovereignty in areas such as launch infrastructure was a highlight in the Review, the importance of alliances and continued participation in key structures, such as NATO, NASA and ESA, was also significant. Operational risk and informational sharing will allow for more resiliency and increased pace of growth as allies can burden-share space operations.

As the IR notes, cooperation and collaboration in the space domain remain critical for bolstering program support, strengthening a domestic position, and ensuring a more sustainable space environment. – Julia Balm

To mark this recent and most significant integration of space into a defence review as a ‘better late than never’ posture would be to disjoint the necessity to properly assess priorities, ambitions, and resilience geared growth. In this respect, ‘meaningful’ approaches to space at a formative stage is an encouraging sign that the UK is thinking significantly enough about its growing role in space as a unique role not to mimic other space powers such as the US, Russia, UAE or China.

Language of a ‘meaningful UK in space’ therefore breeds expectations that adequate assessments will be made about which particular strengths are most imperative for the UK to prioritize. While competition exists in space, especially between the UK and other actors with much higher space sector spending, the UK must continue to tread cautiously as it ensures space power growth doesn’t encounter any white elephants on its course. Intentionality is at the essence of making post-COVID UK recovery, growth, and goals realistic.

Also worth noting is the consistent 2030 deadline cited for space ambitions. On 8 April 2014, the Space Growth Action Plan 2014-2030 pointed to raising the UK share of the ‘expected 400 billions global space-enabled market to 10% by 2030’ whilst a House of Commons debate pack on ‘The Future of the UK Space Industry’ – published in early February 2021 – affirmed this 10% capture of the global market by 2030. The IR reaffirmed a 2030 deadline for ambitions: ‘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 sovereign capabilities and burden-sharing partnerships with our allies.’ A 10 year timeline is valuable in that assessments of success can be measured efficiently and trial and error have room to run course. On the other side of the coin, this may also jolt ambitious growth if risk averse timelines stunt creative visions and progressive future planning. While 10 years is a valid start to measure development, it’s also necessary to think of longer term space power goals to give missions meaning beyond mere technological determinism, to be proactive and cutting edge, and to shape a strategy that will stand the test of time. As more information on space strategy begins to surface in the near future, particularly with the National Space Council developing the UK’s first national space strategy in 2021, long term ambitions are worth noting as remarkable pieces to the long-term picture of UK space power growth.

The UK Ministry of Defence followed the IR with the publication of the Defence Command Paper (DCP), Defence in a Competitive Age, in March 2021.

In the publication of the DCP, what was vague for space in the Integrated Review became clearer, especially in the Strategic Command application. – Julia Balm

Alongside declarations of a National Space Operations Center, and a constellation of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance satellites, there was also reference to a space cadre supported by the Space Academy. These developments demonstrate that pouring more focus and energy into a cohesive space sector requires understanding what exactly is situated in space, the purpose and motivations behind activities that may be saturated with ambiguity, and those resulting implications. These puzzle pieces are necessary in order to adequately defend against potentially malign actor intentions or space weapons which could undermine space security and UK space power. Protecting critical national infrastructure in space requires cohesion, the sharing of information, and a unified cognizance to establish a clear picture.

With the growth of the space sector and space power globally, the UK is sharpening itself to the value of opportunities in space and to the necessity to defend growing space infrastructure. The 2021 Integrated Review is responding to the necessity for assured access to space by integrating space as a domain worthy of sitting alongside other traditional domains. ‘Meaningful’ approaches to UK space power and defence foster encouraging expectations that prioritized ambitions and cohesive growth will continue to materialize both within the UK and alongside its allies.


Julia C. Balm is a PhD student in the Freeman Air and Space Institute (FASI) in the School of Security Studies, King’s College London. Her research examines the UK’s space posture and assesses the UK’s approach towards space policy making in the new space age. Julia holds an MA in Non-Proliferation and International Security from King’s College London as well as an Honours BA in History from the University of Toronto.


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Julia Balm

Julia Balm

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