Skip to main content

24 March 2021

"The place is getting congested, it's getting contested" UK's leading space commander calls for international regulation of space

Air Vice-Marshal Paul Godfrey, commander of the newly established Space Command, joined Air Vice-Marshal Harvey Smyth, Ministry of Defence Director Space at an event with the Freeman Air & Space Institute

Harv and Godders colab

Speaking at an online King’s College London event yesterday, Air Vice-Marshal Paul Godfrey, inaugural commander of the newly established Space Command, discussed the need for accepted international norms and behaviours, not just from countries but also businesses operating in the space environment.

He was joined by Air Vice-Marshal Harvey Smyth, Ministry of Defence Director Space at the first ever in conversation event in front of a public audience between the UK’s leading space commanders. 680 people tuned into the live event, hosted by the Freeman Air and Space Institute in the School of Security Studies, in partnership with Airbus.

AVM Smyth also spoke of the need for new agreements to “future-proof” and ensure appropriate deterrents for the space domain working with international bodies such as NATO, rather than continuing to rely on an outdated space treaty from 1967.

Without this space regulation, AVM Godfrey underlined the risk, as with cyber security, of the “unregulated nature of these domains”, particularly given the dramatic increase in satellites being launched in space every year, with China set to launch 40 upwards this year. He also touched on the critical problem of space debris, which NASA estimates could exceed over 100 million small one-millimetre pieces in space with the potential to damage critical space infrastructure, but also the need for transparency:

“One person’s debris clean up and old satellite clean up could be another person’s nefarious anti-satellite instrument.”

At a time when space power is critical both to the UK’s national security and prosperity, and the threat from adversaries operating in space is a growing challenge. AVM Smyth commented:

“The space domain is changing fast, for many years it was relatively benign, [but] in recent years, decades we’ve seen it exponentially change, specifically in terms of…how it’s being contested…the threat grows by the day.”

Commenting on the need for public space awareness as part of an approach to deterrence, AVM Godfrey called for a re-think on how information is classified:

“The space domain remains highly classified…deterrence comes about when we can tell people about what capabilities there are and what is happening up there…what we need to do…is…start to look at where can talk to…the general public in terms of why we are doing certain things”

He went on to emphasise a greater public understanding of the extent to which we rely on space in our daily lives:

“There’s so much more to space than just the military side…our normal lives…are dominated by space, by GPS, by communications, satellite TV, timing, all sorts of things, we need to understand that side of it.”

Space was forefront in the recently announced UK Integrated Review of defence and foreign policy, Harv Smyth commented:

“This IR has been an inflection point for us, it’s given us the stage to really land the narrative about space, to really get formal and overt recognition for the domain…no different from how we treat air, land, maritime, cyber.

“I'm starting to see people wake up to the importance of it…The PM is very clear on his ambition for where we go with space and how we utilise it as a nation that sees itself as an R&D superpower by 2030.”

He also discussed the growing influence of commercial space use:

“There is as much a role to play for commercial as there is for military or governments…as we see more and more the commercialisation of space and big companies batting at a level that is equivalent to a state…it won’t be long before we see [commercial organisations] have as much of a say in what goes on up there as a state would.”

Launching on 1 April, UK Space Command will have oversight of all space-based developments, including space operations, space workforce generation and space capability.

As part of the event the commanders were questioned by a leading panel of space experts from industry, politics, military and academia. The commanders shared their priorities for UK space defence, including their work to launch a national space strategy and defence space strategy coming out in June. They explained how it will be delivered across government and will involve a collaborative approach to space policy across government, industry, research, science and technology.

Sophy Antrobus, Research Associate at the Freeman Air and Space Institute, who chaired the event said:

"Tonight’s event with the UK’s leading space commanders provided a unique opportunity for them to share their vision for UK space defence with a public audience for the first time ever, including the challenges and opportunities for space power over the coming years.

"I’m delighted that AVM Godfrey and AVM Smyth chose the Freeman Air and Space Institute to host their first ever in conversation event. We look forward to continuing the conversation and contributing to space defence knowledge and research going forwards."

Richard Franklin, Managing Director, Airbus Defence and Space UK, said:

“Space is fundamental to the UK’s current and future military operations. As the UK’s leading commercial and military space manufacturing and services company, we were very keen to support this event to hear these key insights first-hand from the MOD’s space leaders.”

The Freeman Air and Space Institute, based in the School of Security Studies, King’s College London, provides independent, original knowledge and understanding of air and space issues.

Airbus Defence and Space is the largest space manufacturing and services company in the UK, employing nearly 4,000 people working on space-related projects. Areas of expertise and operations include Earth observation, military and commercial telecommunications, navigation and scientific satellite design and manufacture, related ground systems, payload RF electronics, instruments and radar.


In this story

Sophy  Antrobus

Research Fellow at the Freeman Air and Space Institute