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The IR's first year: One giant leap for UK space power

The Integrated Review (IR) laid out the Government’s vision for the UK up to 2030. Including the space domain in this strategic assessment of UK priorities was a testament that UK space activity defines Britain’s place in the world. It should be underlined once more that this is the first significant time space was featured in this type of UK policy document, showcasing the government’s place for space alongside other traditional domains. This has been a promising year with considerable focus on declaring space intentions, building new partnerships, and cohering cross sector approaches. In totality, we can certainly glance back at this recent year with optimism and assert that, on its own merits, the UK is enthusiastic about participating in the growing space economy, in preparing defence for protecting space advantages, and in growing a capacity to bolster space power in the coming years. This year has set a strong foundation and firm trajectory for the UK to build on space strategy and continue investing in capabilities attuned to national priorities.

This year has set a strong foundation and firm trajectory for the UK to build on space strategy and continue investing in capabilities attuned to national priorities. – Julia Balm

Examining how the UK has developed space since the IR, this year in review reveals how the UK has integrated space as a domain nationally while integrating itself as a global space actor through an internationalising approach to collaboration.

National Integration

The strategic development of UK space policy has seen a major upgrade this year with comprehensive goals, integrated concepts and an outright desire for growth. This prominent focus on space strategy is exemplified by the Defence Command Paper (DCP), National Space Strategy (NSS), and Defence Space Strategy (DSS). As part of the new £1.4b investment into space over the next ten years, the ISTARI Programme, Titania, MINERVA programme and Prometheus 2 have received funding; space domain awareness (SDA), satellite communication systems, intelligence surveillance and multi-domain integration (MDI) are at the core of these investments. The recently published Scottish Space Strategy announced ambitions to deliver £4bn to the Scottish economy and a 5x increase in the workforce. Similarly, the Welsh Space Strategy engaged with the industrial ecosystem, focussing its strategy on space start-ups and the hi-tech workforce to strengthen areas of space launch, low earth observation (LEO) capabilities, and innovative satellite technologies. These strategic documents indicate that the UK is realising spheres of potential growth and leadership in space through clearly stated objectives. An essential component of curating an informed strategy is acknowledging implementation and its challenges; with relatively low levels of existing capabilities and new organisational structures, there are challenges to ensuring strategic ambitions are sustainable in the next phase. The direction of implementation thus far has largely had backward applications, with strategy declared after the start of implementation. This is a result of investments in a challenging strategic environment as well as pan-governmental alignment in decision making. The Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC) published a study, ‘Realising the ambitions of the UK’s Defence Space Strategy’, after the launch of the DSS, identifying the key factors shaping implementation to 2030; this study found a need for space literacy, a ‘market taker’ approach to Defence, and a window of opportunity to do things differently in space. With just one year under the belt of the IR, these are still the early days of implementation with much yet to be actioned and many areas to grow. A main take away from this year in space strategy is a collective realisation that growing the UK space sector with a limited budget requires ‘meaningful’ growth, capitalisation on opportunities, and ruthless prioritisation.

A main take away from this year in space strategy is a collective realisation that growing the UK space sector with a limited budget requires ‘meaningful’ growth, capitalisation on opportunities, and ruthless prioritisation.– Julia Balm

There has also been significant progress in the development of organisational structures to tackle the coherence and realistic growth of space ambitions. The UK Space Command (UKSC), established 1 April 2021 as a joint command, centralises UK strengths into a singular organisation that unifies space operations, capabilities, and generation. By bolstering cohesiveness in the UK approach to space, UK Space Command provides “command and control of all of Defence’s space capabilities, including UK Space Operations Centre (SpOC), SKYNET Satellite Communications, RAF Fylingdales” and more. The National Space Council, welcomed into the Cabinet Committees on 29 June 2020, continues to coordinate government policy and work on issues related to diplomacy and national security in, from, and through space. It is worth noting that there is also an equivalent National Space Council in US administration, currently chaired by Vice President Kamala Harris. The US Space Council is composed of cabinet-level members and senior executive branch officials to synchronise expertise on national space activities. Prior to the development of the UK National Space Council, the Space Leadership Council was the space-specific forum established in 2010 that represented the space industry at a national level by advising ministers on strategic policy and future ambitions.

The UK’s new National Space Council, chaired directly by the Prime Minister, is therefore a welcome post-Brexit development that coordinates overall government policy towards “issues concerning prosperity, diplomacy and national security in, through and from Space.” While this Council is a stronger commitment to involving space directly in the government, it may be too soon to make an appraisal of institutional innovation and whether it follows the successful footsteps of the US National Space Council. In line with developing more organisational cohesion, in February 2022, the National Space Partnership (NSP) was developed as an independent body to sit neutrally across the space sector, coordinating new space activities, mediating sector interests, and ensuring the UK sector is maximising strengths. As a response to goals stated in the NSS, Director of the NSP, Ruth Mallors-Ray, positioned a Ten Point Plan to bring “together both the civil and defence space sectors for the first time” working “collaboratively with industry, academia and government bodies to enable, support and activate the space strategy”. As a progression of the Space Growth Partnership (SGP) and former Innovation Growth Strategy (IGS), the NSP is governed with support from BEIS, UK Space Agency, Satellite Applications Catapult, UK space trade association and the Space Academic Network; neutrality in this approach means engagement with the entire space sector through thought leadership on geopolitics, regulation, supply chains, space science and wider market growth to build a unified portfolio on investments and opportunities. These organisational developments showcase a more synthesised approach to the growing space sector, allowing for increased coordination between diverse communities and stakeholders in a more agile approach to strategic goals; organisational cohesion certainly conveys a feeling that space strategy is in capable hands.

These organisational developments showcase a more synthesised approach to the growing space sector, allowing for increased coordination between diverse communities and stakeholders in a more agile approach to strategic goals.– Julia Balm

International Integration

Over the past year, the UK has been internationally integrating itself into the space domain, capturing a 5.1% share of the global space economy with the space sector contributing £16.4bn to the UK economy. As argued previously, abandoning the initial target to capture 10% of the global space economy was a refreshing decision made in the NSS that recognizes space power requires sustainable and steady growth rather than early comparative metrics.

Positioning a role of leadership in the domain, the UK proposed UN Resolution 75/36 “Reducing Space Threats Through Norms, Rules, and Principles of Responsible Behaviours” in December 2020. Since then, this open ended working group has been meeting as part of Preventing An Arms Race In Outer Space (PAROS) to discuss “threats in outer space, and how responsible behaviours might help tackle them.” The discussion on responsible behaviours is highly relevant, especially with Russia’s irresponsible anti satellite test (ASAT) on 15 November creating a field of at least 1,500 pieces of trackable debris, threatening satellites in low earth orbit (LEO) as well as the International Space Station. Because the importance of outer space is universal, tackling threats to space security and the promotion of responsible behaviours are international agendas.

Because the importance of outer space is universal, tackling threats to space security and the promotion of responsible behaviours are international agendas.– Julia Balm

This resolution is an important opportunity for multilateral discussions to progress the identification and clarification of perceived threats and concerning behaviours; this can eventually lead to more fitting regulations and rules, either binding or non-binding, to create a safer and more sustainable space in a domain prone to dual use ambiguity and debris proliferation.

For decades, the UK has leaned on partnerships with other countries to develop and access space capabilities. As the DSS noted, an ‘own-collaborate-access’ framework capitalises on the UK’s capacity to grow sovereign assets while collaborating with partners to fill in the gaps of a limited UK budget and resources. The Combined Space Operations Initiative (CSpO), which comprises Australia, Canada, France, Germany, New Zealand, UK and US, recently affirmed a shared commitment to “generate and improve cooperation, coordination, and interoperability opportunities”. This Combined Space Operations Vision 2031 reinforces IR objectives to both strengthen security and defence at home and overseas, and sustain strategic advantage through science and technology; this shared commitment between partners is emphasised through mission assurance and resiliency.

As part of the UK’s Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’, collaboration between the UK and Australia has notably grown over the past year. The UK-Australia Space Bridge celebrated its first anniversary alongside a recent announcement of a strengthened UK-Australia partnership to boost bilateral cooperation in defence, security, climate and trade. Aiming to be “the European partner of choice in the Indo-Pacific”, the UK is repositioning itself globally. AUKUS, the trilateral security partnership between the UK, US and Australia, indicates a growing depth of collaboration between the three countries. Australian foreign minister Marise Payne clarified that AUKUS will a focus on “equitable vaccine distribution, COVID-19 economic recovery, low-emissions technology, infrastructure investment, critical technologies, education, cyber security, space and countering disinformation”. This partnership bewildered France outside of the AUKUS agreement, presenting a significant blow to French NATO participation which was only restored by Sarkozy in 2009. France’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, released on 22 February, announced the departure from a relationship with Australia as a close strategic partner, dealing instead with Australia on a ‘case by case basis’. The dynamics stirred by AUKUS, paired with a clear Indo-Pacific focal point, beg the question of where the UK’s relationship with partners such as the European Space Agency (ESA) will move forward and where the UK will spread out space collaborations. While the UK remains a member of the intergovernmental organisation, the influence of the EU over ESA highlights whether UK interests can be protected in the agency in the long term, especially after participation in EU Galileo and European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service (EGNOS) ceased.

A Historic Year for Space

Looking ahead, there are significant plans for the future, including the launch of the first satellite into orbit from a launchpad on British soil and commercial growth with a new North West Space Cluster to bridge interregional sector strengths across the UK alongside Harwell, Leicester, Guildford, Scotland and Cornwall. But despite this ambitious year in review, it’s important to rein in future expectations and recognize that not all years will see this level of growth. The IR’s ‘meaningful’ approach to space will take time to materialise and potential future steadiness should not mischaracterize the UK as either a new space actor or a small space power. From as early as the 1610-11 King James telescope to recent involvement in the 2021 James Webb Space Telescope, Britain has long envisioned its place in space. As space strategy continues to evolve, the UK is integrating space within its national borders while merging into the global space stage through partnerships and leadership. The pace of growth for a ‘meaningful’ strategy, therefore, is not one which should be rushed for fear of catching up with others. In this respect, intentional cross-cut sector growth should continue to be a keen focus for the UK because strategy built on prestige in one area alone is highly perishable; sustainable growth is crucial. While there is much room to grow, the UK has certainly had lift-off this last year which is worth recognizing as a milestone in the history of UK space power.

While there is much room to grow, the UK has certainly had lift-off this last year which is worth recognizing as a milestone in the history of UK space power. – Julia Balm

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 assesses strategic theory in the new space age and examines the UK’s space posture. 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

PhD Candidate

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