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.