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19 November 2020

UK space defence needs targeted investment to respond to future threats says new research paper

A new research paper from the Freeman Air & Space Institute outlines recommendations for British space power


The Freeman Air and Space Institute in the School of Security Studies, King’s College London has published a new paper outlining proposals for boosting UK spacepower. Authored by Dr Bleddyn Bowen and launched at a roundtable today (Thursday 20 November), the paper makes several recommendations in strategic planning and investments in space policy, especially in light of the UK Government’s delayed Integrated Review on defence spending.

As the paper sets out, the military integration of spacepower is a proliferating around the world. Whilst there is increased interest in spacepower in the UK, there are fears the UK could fail to adapt to other states’ space technology development, including adversarial states who could pose threats to terrestrial military forces and civilians.

The paper also acknowledges the considerable challenges facing the UK in this much-needed area of development, including the political‐economic rupture of Brexit, which cuts across the British space‐industrial base. The Covid‐19 pandemic has also decimated budgets and could threaten public spending on future challenges across the board, including in defence and space policy.

Dr Bleddyn Bowen said:

“Whilst there are considerable headwinds that could undermine investment and R&D into British spacepower, this current Integrated Review, is the first UK defence review to pay specific attention to spacepower.

“There has never been a greater need for a clear space‐centric perspective on what spacepower can and should offer for defence policy, security, and wider political goals today.”

Dr Bowen’s paper sets out what a spacepower defence strategy might look like, with a key set of recommendations for policymakers. It acknowledges that whilst the British state cannot aspire for a large degree of strategic autonomy in space, it can focus on targeting key space technology investments that may make a difference for operationalfreedom in acute crises and conflicts.

The recommendations include:

  • Strategic investment in key infrastructure such as communications systems, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance satellites, and space domain awareness to enhance core military and intelligence capabilities on Earth.
  • The need for clear terrestrial political and military priorities such as territorial defence of NATO allies, expeditionary warfare, or low-intensity conflicts so that spacepower investments can be tailored to support them.
  • Military space organisation should be rationalised and spacepower culture developed
  • The UK must react to the space-enabled modernisation of potentially hostile military forces, as well as adapt to the possible effects of space warfare on terrestrial military capabilities

In the paper, Dr Bowen says that the new Director of Space role at the MoD is an encouraging sign in terms of coordinating space defence policy and boosting the profile of a defence space perspective in Whitehall. It is one of several moving parts ongoing in UK space policy and strategy-making towards developing a more space-centric military culture and cadre of space specialists.

The paper also argues that the National Space Council has an important role to play in coordinating space activity across the state. However, it faces the very difficult challenge of coordinating a diverse range of activities across multiple space sectors, therefore there must be clarity over the country’s top space policy objectives and a strategy to meet them, that goes beyond a ‘one space policy fits all’ approach.

Dr Bowen concluded that Britain cannot aspire to be strategically autonomous when it comes to space power, given the budget, infrastructure and technology limitations and the fact our allies provide access to many critical space infrastructures, it can aspire to more operational independence with the correct, targeted investments in specific areas. However, ‘we need to learn to walk before we can run… and build competencies in more accessible, impactful, and affordable areas first.’

Dr Bleddyn Bowen is Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Leicester. An expert in military, intelligence and strategic space policy issues, he frequently presents to and advises practitioners including civilian and military personnel and agencies in the UK. He is the author of War in Space: Strategy, Spacepower, Geopolitics (Edinburgh University Press) and has published research in several peer-reviewed journals on issues relating to spacepower, strategy, and defence.


British Spacepower and the Integrated Review: The Search for Strategy

This paper examines the role of spacepower and space policy in the midst of the Integrated Review, a nascent Defence Space Strategy, and organisational shifts in the UK space sector.