The publication of the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (the Integrated Review) recognises the strategic importance of space for the UK’s security, defence and resilience in military and civil terms. It highlights the need to raise the UK’s game in the global space race, and the importance of carving out and maintaining a world class role across all parts of the space domain value chain.
To date, the UK’s space successes have arisen from market and tactical government activities. These range from robotics to human space flight, exploration missions to Mars (the UK is part of the ExoMars mission), the SpaceX Starlink fleet launch, OneWeb and the James Webb Space Telescope mission start (in which the UK plays a key role). But the landscape is complex. Despite the UK capturing 5.1% of the global market, many initiatives operate in silos. A national focus and ‘one UK’ approach is needed, now more than ever.
Enter Space Command – the orchestrator
Rethinking the UK government approach to space, the Integrated Review focuses on the purpose of a Space Command that will be established in the summer of 2021. Space Command will form a centralised hub to unify UK strengths in the space sector, assisting indigenous technological advances through defence procurement. But its potential to function as the spearhead of national civil and defence space activity will only come about if it is provided with the requisite authority and tools to drive change.
For instance, it will need to have clear authority, scope and responsibility across the defence lines of development (DLODs) and civilian areas, in addition to its likely combat and service provision role. It must also have the tools and capabilities – and the requisite level of investment – to liaise and provide leadership across the value chain, including with the armed services and the national industrial and academic landscape.
If it can meet these needs, Space Command will enable the UK’s technological strategic advantages in the commercial space sector to be drawn into defence far more rapidly. This will bolster the UK’s security, adaptive capability, collaboration and resilience. Such a unified orchestrator of civil and defence activities will enable an easier, transparent balance to be struck between academic, industrial, defence and security interests within the UK.
Space Command will also provide Government with a single organisation and representative on the world stage, through which all parts of government, industry and academia can contribute to the UK’s space story. The risk is that the Integrated Review doesn’t explicitly acknowledge that UK civilian activities in Space are predominantly driven by international trends and forces. So, Space Command must focus equally on the international (with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) and domestic agenda.
Historically, innovation in Space has encountered headwinds. Risk aversion and a lack of the right science and technology skills has restricted the UK’s space potential. With a single body providing coordination, the UK will be able to measure the holistic risk of not investing in space innovation, as well as more clearly seeing the benefits of investment. This approach will highlight the importance of strategic R&D, underscoring the national ability to secure long-term advantage through science and technology.
Through the actions above, the UK can achieve its vision of becoming a meaningful actor in space – both growing the sector and ensuring the UK has the capabilities to protect and defend its interests in a more fiercely contested domain.