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Deciphering the National Space Strategy: Cloudy with a chance of cohesion

Julia Balm

PhD student in the Freeman Air and Space Institute

21 October 2021

After much anticipation and an initial release date of 2018, the UK National Space Strategy (NSS) is finally in print. As a more general document on UK space ambitions rather than a detailed strategic blueprint, the UK’s space strategy remains both broad and vague. Despite this the existence of a national space strategy should not be understated as it sheds some light on the implications of a meaningful approach to space for the UK.

Highlights of the National Space Strategy 

The NSS includes details on UK achievements in space, providing considerable evaluation of the historical legacy of UK space ambitions. Acknowledging the past is a first step towards directing a realistic future and it is refreshing to see a comprehensive overview of the UK’s participation in space, its realistic capabilities, and the vital contribution of space to the UK economy. 

A strong component of the NSS is the highlighted relationship between the UK and the European Space Agency (ESA), an intergovernmental organisation separate from the EU. Focus on the UK relationship with ESA and other global partnerships instils hope for continued relationships, integration, and burden sharing alongside ambitions for sovereign capabilities.

The notion that space power is impossible without cooperation and collaboration rings loudly. Yet there are continued uncertainties over the post-Brexit relationship between the UK and EU, especially after the UK has lost access to Galileo, Europe’s Global Satellite Navigation System.

However, one area the NSS doesn’t touch upon is the question of how UK assets and interests are secured, given the post-Brexit exclusions in the ESA that now exist. These include the sensitive areas of encrypted signals and frequency bandusage, as well as the inability for UK industry to now bid for work on ESA programmes.

Outside of Europe, the NSS highlights the ‘UK-Australia Space Bridge’, as an example of international cooperation, intended to increase knowledge exchange and investment in businesses and job creation in the sector across the two countries. With the recent announcement on AUKUS and the UK’s Indo-Pacific tilt, this direction of travel helps expand the scope for UK space cooperation beyond ESA.

The strategy cannot be fully discussed in scope and complexity without acknowledging the considerable challenges of implementation and monitoring goal progression. The document signals four phases as important starting points for realising ambitions; the ‘countdown phase’ within the next few months, the ‘ignition phase’ within the next year, ‘thrust phase from 2023-2030', and finally the ‘orbit phase’ which looks at 2030 and beyond. These phases are important for coherently tying up ends and means, and for holding the government accountable for achieving the growth it wishes to see.

The NSS also promises a delivery framework to come after the Spending Review,where these broad visions and goals will shape into more tangible metrics. It is hoped this will include more specific priorities on implementation, such as oversight, scope, risk management, organisational roles, subordinate objectives, and performance measures.

Deciphering the National Space Strategy

In emphasising a competitive race in the congested space environment, the NSS conveys a fear of missing out on a growing space economy and concerns about being outcompeted by larger space powers. This fear could, however, encourage investments in the space industry that are disjointed from the actual needs and motivations of a growing UK space power. Viewing the UK as a secondary space power compared to others with larger budgets, space infrastructure and dependencies, creates a metric of success dependent on quantitative assets and budgetary scope rather than success determined by self-serving strategy and goals attuned to national needs.

Clarification is therefore needed on what the UK wants to acquire from growing its presence in space, why it wishes to grow space power, and what space can do for the UK. The decision in the NSS to abandon the 2030 target of capturing 10% of the global space economy, is a refreshing decision towards a more realistic strategy for the UK beyond mere growth rates. While ‘a meaningful UK in space’ has yet to be addressed in specifics, the NSS does succeed in demonstrating interest and intent; after all, one must first have strategic interest before a strategy can evolve, mature, and prosper.

As for the distinction between space power and spacepower, the upcoming Defence Space Strategy will hopefully clarify what continues to remain ambiguous for defence in the NSS. Space in the modern battlefield is an environment where technologies are neither operationally siloed nor demonstrably offensive. The Defence Space Strategy will hopefully address these security concerns and direct a more specific strategy towards mitigating these blind spots and fortifying the UK against growing space threats.

 For those wishing for clarity from the much anticipated National Space Strategy, the strategy remains both broad and hazy in many regards, especially with no commitment to increased spending or new programme announcements. What is most apparent from this strategic document is the desire for a more cohesive space strategy alongside concrete intentions to take advantage of today’s abundant opportunities in space. 

In short, the NSS stands as a testament to an ambitious UK in space, or, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson declares in the forward, ‘a Galactic Britain’. Even if the NSS is short on specifics, this should not negate the value of a strategic publication in opening a dialogue and encouraging debate about where to steer a meaningful future for the UK in space.

When unravelling the National Space Strategy, it becomes evident that this is not a document about ends but rather a document about new beginnings, ambitious realisations, and an urgency for growth. 

 Julia 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.



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Julia Balm

Julia Balm

Research Associate

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