Already this year there have been several developments in both the civilian and military realms of space which have warranted further discussion and careful analysis.
This article was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by Rob Clark.
As a brief point of consideration, these have included the first satellite-enabled photographing of a black hole, the near-successful landing of the first commercial space craft by the Israelis, and the emergence of India as a true space power, confirming it as only the fourth state to possess anti-satellite capability with its successful ASAT test last month.
These three events highlight the current dichotomy between recent developments in space exploration between the civilian-industrial, and the military-strategic environments. Whilst civilian space programmes have focused on exploration, satellite imagery and navigation systems, the various military programmes have concentrated on space-debris and missile-launch detection, and anti-satellite capabilities. The rapid developments recently witnessed in anti-satellite capability emphasises how space must now be considered, from a defence perspective, as a new, multi-dimensional domain.
With this realisation that space ought now be given crucial consideration in military strategy, there needs to be a fundamental requirement for the UK to develop a coherent and succinct space programme, merging both the civil and military components, in order to shape future national interests; ones which will be largely determined in this new and evolving environment. Central to this approach is the support of key government ministers and stakeholders.
The current UK Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Chris Skidmore, spoke this week at the launch of Policy Exchange’s new Space Policy Unit, the first dedicated centre for the study of space by any UK think-tank.
Emphasising the speed at which current developments are taking place across space exploration, Mr Skidmore, as the Minister charged with space affairs, is central to the UK further developing both critical space infrastructure. In particular, developing new satellite technologies enabling higher resolution, real-time imagery, which provides crucial situational awareness in what is such an immense realm.
In order to best achieve this unified effort, the UK should consider setting up a space council, to develop exploration whilst simultaneously mitigating against potential future conflict. A council would allow the UK to safeguard its national interests, said Mr Skidmore, while a fundamental benefit to this joined-up approach would be the ability for every department to be aligned on these priorities.
The sense for pragmatism on this regard was echoed by Policy Exchange’s keynote speaker, US Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. Remarking how space has turned from a benign domain, into a contested one, Secretary Wilson emphasised the need to maintain defensive capabilities to protect our vital infrastructure, whilst ensuring that we are able to fight back in times of conflict.
Fortunately for the UK, the US is still the global leader in space; with a budget of $US 21.5billon in 2019, NASA dominates civilian exploration. The Indian Space Research Organisation has a budget of approximately $US 1.6billion, whilst the German Aerospace Centre and Italian Space Agency budgets of $US 2.6billion and $US 1.8 billion respectively (2016 figures) ensures strong leadership from across the UK’s allies.
This leaves the UK an opportunity in which to grow its space programme, joining international allies in ongoing developments. With a much lower budget however of slightly under $US 500million (2017/17), the UK Space Agency should seek additional government funding in order to meet both these requirements, and the UK government’s obligation to spend 2.4% GDP on research and development; an area in which London still maintains a leading global role.
Despite historic relations in early space exploration between the Royal Air Force and the USAF throughout the Cold War, centred around RAF Menwith Hill in North Yorkshire, amongst others, the UK has for too long been a net receiver of the US’ space programme. Now, with the formation of Policy Exchange’s Space Policy Unit headed by Gabriel Elefteriu, in addition to influential members of the government embracing the requirement for an increased British participation in space, the UK has an opportunity to help shape an environment increasingly pivotal to national interests.