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Pauline Neville-Jones: Space and Security Roundtable

I do not need to tell this audience that space has come to underpin all aspects of daily life. 

From a security and resilience point of view - and I define these terms broadly, to include everything from the ability to project power abroad, protect citizens and respond to disasters, to ensuring the prosperity of the economy and society - space assets fulfil two functions. 

First, for the defence and intelligence community, they facilitate the majority of surveillance and communications activities, and also the navigation of systems.  Secondly, space is essential to the functioning of the UK's critical infrastructure and emergency response capabilities.

This dependence on space-based systems is increasing.  It makes the country vulnerable as risk of disruption to these systems, whether the result of man-made or natural activities, also increases.  But it also raises questions about what the UK's interests in space are.  And given that we are heavily reliant on foreign-owned space assets, this dependence in turn raises some difficult questions about how the UK can go about protecting and advancing those interests.  This morning I want to look, broadly, at two sets of questions.  What are our sovereign needs and what degree of dependence on others can we afford?  Do we need to strike a better balance and, if so, how should we do so?

<h2>The UK's involvement in space: where are we now?</h2>

It is worth noting at the outset that the UK's involvement in space has quite a long history.   It has its origins at the end of the Second World War, when V2 rockets were captured and experimented on.   The Cold War then provided impetus for ballistic missile and rocket development, notably the Blue Streak missile programme and Skylark rocket in the late 1950s.  Blue Streak was abandoned and two other rocket programmes took its place: Black Knight and Black Arrow.  The last was capable of putting a satellite into orbit - and indeed the programme marked the only time a British satellite was launched by a British rocket - but was cancelled in 1971, when the government took the decision to terminate the UK's programme of satellite launches.  Perhaps this decision was spurred by an offer from the US in 1959 to launch scientific satellites designed and constructed by foreign partners - an offer which had already been taken up by the UK in 1962 to launch Ariel 1. 

It is clear that from the 1970s onwards, this country's involvement in space has been premised either on working through collaborative space agencies, such as the European Space Agency, or relying on the systems launched and operated by key partners.  During the relative stability of the Cold War deterrence framework, which was largely constructed between the United States and Soviet Union and underpinned by both space situational awareness and the "nuclear umbrella" provided to Europe, this was an arguably plausible posture to adopt.  Space was not a military priority for the UK at the time and, despite emerging concepts such as the so-called 'Revolution in Military Affairs' and 'Network Enabled Capability' it is fair to say that we underestimated our future reliance on it as an enabler.  We have also failed to anticipate how central space assets would become to homeland security and resilience. Indeed, we still have only a rudimentary understanding of the dependence of our essential sectors on space systems.

Of course, it is certainly not the case that the UK has left the space race entirely.  It has retained significant expertise in satellite design, as demonstrated by the Skynet military communications satellites - the UK's only independent satellite capability.  It is also demonstrated by the increasing use of the UK-designed small satellites which, although launched by others, are used as part of the Disaster Monitoring Constellation and Galileo in Europe's new satellite navigation system.

But while the UK has maintained design expertise, I would not class it as a "space power".   Compared with countries like France (Europe's premier space power) and the US, and also China which is exploring space not only technically but doctrinally, the UK has tended to give space a relatively low priority.  For each of these countries space is a critical sector and strategic domain.  It is worth noting that we are dependent on the US for much of our military space capability - Skynet 5 is our only independent capability.   It is instructive to compare ourselves to France.  France is the only European country to have developed ballistic missiles.  It has its own national observation and communications satellites.  It has experimented with electronic intelligence satellites and plans significant future investment in this area.  It operates a satellite launch base in Guinea, for both civil and military uses - a base that also operates as Europe's Spaceport, and for which the European Space Agency contributes two thirds of the annual budget. And it wants to construct a ballistic missile detection and early-warning satellite capability.  Overall, as announced in its Defence and Security White Paper, France will be doubling its funding available for military satellite programmes.

So, whilst occupying a similar position to France in overall military capabilities, possessing some that France does not have, this country's position has been (and remains) one of relying on others for space capabilities, and in particular the US and some collaborative European projects.  But is this sustainable in the future?

<h2>Space capabilities and the changing strategic context</h2>

Geopolitical trends will result in the strategic focus of the US shifting to South East Asia.  Without positing any deliberate downgrading of relations with European allies, this shift in strategic priorities could well, over time, affect the prioritisation afforded to UK requests for access to the US national security space system, for example in respect of ongoing intelligence acquisition and those military operations where the UK has unique interests at stake or acts with non-US led coalitions.

And in any event, the Obama Administration has already made it clear that it will expect Europeans to do more for themselves.  Of note here is France's intention to use its national satellite programmes as a springboard for greater European co-operation and collaboration in this area.  To quote the French defence and security White Paper about future intentions: 'overall, European cooperation will be encouraged in the field of space application, notably in the form of asset-sharing (mutualisation)'.  One area has already been earmarked: currently Europe is dependent on the US for the detailed and constant tracking of objects orbiting the earth.  France wants to lessen this dependency by championing the development of a European project to detect and monitor objects; the UK is already involved in this European Space Agency programme for independent Space Situational Awareness.

The second factor to note is that there will be a relative decline in Western - including US - technical superiority, and that it will be increasingly difficult for any country to achieve comprehensive world-wide coverage using what will inevitably be a limited number of space assets.  Western operational cooperation will be highly desirable. Just because the US strategic focus will shift eastwards, this does not imply that the US will disengage from other parts of the world.  Such burden sharing already occurs between the US and the UK in the area of Open Source Intelligence and it is something that is very much valued by the US.

What should the UK's policy be?  I suggest that we are not in a position to be a major leader in space. And we certainly cannot achieve autonomy even in its enabling aspects. But we have certain vital needs such as electronic intelligence.  And we have certain capabilities and skills so we do have the option of becoming less dependent and a more significant partner that others would value our contribution enough for them to wish to continue cooperate in supplying capabilities we do not possess ourselves. Given the importance of space, which I would describe as critical, to which we have been slow to wake up, it seems to me such a policy would be wise and in the national interest.
My argument is that the current degree of UK reliance on foreign controlled space assets is neither desirable nor sustainable for us or a number of our key partners.  I have already mentioned that this country has significant design expertise in the field of small satellites and that these small satellites have already been used as components of "constellations" for disaster monitoring and navigation.  So it is worth reinforcing one of the suggestions in the defence and security industry's paper on 'Space Secures Prosperity', which is that: 'In the future, small satellites are one possible route to secure an independent UK space-based ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) capability to supplement our military requirements. The potential global coverage provided by these systems could ensure that the UK has an organic global ISTAR capability to help to meet its deep and persistent surveillance requirements.  Moreover, this capability could also offer a niche contribution to the US capability, and allow the UK to participate more fully in European space programmes through the ability to share UK derived data.  In this scenario, participating in US and European programmes would not be mutually exclusive.'

There are, of course, three pre-requisites for this.  The first is to identify the sovereign requirements such small satellites would need to fulfill - I have indicated electronic intelligence as one example - and how these requirements could benefit and be supplementary to key partners like the US and France.  The example of Galileo shows us how important it is for the UK, Europe and US to engage and co-operate in this area.  The second is to maintain the UK's space skills-base, perhaps by earmarking the sector in an updated Defence Industrial Strategy.  Thirdly, since satellites generate enormous amounts of data most will go to waste unless it is analysed and communicated, so investment would also need to be made in analytical capabilities.

<h2>The protection of space assets</h2>

Of course, whether space assets and systems are shared or independent, we need to be able to assure access to - and the use of - them.

Space systems have a large number of vulnerabilities, ranging from intentional strikes by states and non-state actors aimed at destroying or disrupting ground stations, launch systems, or satellites themselves, to collisions as a result of heavier space traffic and the risk posed by debris.  These risks will only increase as the attractions of exploiting space continue to increase.

Active international engagement and management will be required as space traffic becomes heavier and debris increases; there have already been collisions, for example between US and Russian satellites last year, and there has been criticism of the amount of debris caused by destroying old satellites.  Some, such as the Council on Foreign Relations, have suggested 'there is a great need for space traffic management capabilities, including enforceable rules of the road, codes of conduct, and space situational awareness that would inform a "Space Federal Aviation Administration" management capability'.  Decentralising space assets by having greater numbers of smaller satellites could also help reduce overall vulnerability, but only to a relative extent - it would certainly not overcome the problem.  So, greater investment in space situational awareness is important.

Of course, when talking about assuring access to and protecting space assets, people often turn immediately to the risk of the weaponisation of space.  In a sense space is already weaponised, if by weaponisation we refer to any ability to temporarily or permanently disrupt or destroy a satellite.  While technologies are being developed to target assets that are orbiting, there are already a number which are capable of targeting data links (there is an overlap here with cyber security) and ground and launch stations. 

The Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre says that widespread weaponisation of space by 2040 is possible.  By this it means not only that systems capable of countering systems in low-earth orbit are already technically feasible and will become more widespread, but that the introduction of space-based weapons capable of striking targets both in orbit and on the ground will be technically feasible although likely to be limited by political and treaty constraints.  This latter could be classed as organised space warfare.  I would suggest that there is scope for developing norms regarding behaviour, not least as space - like cyber space - is a domain where a (physical) attack within it has consequences for all.  But there remains, of course, the risk posed by rogue states.

In light of all this, I would suggest that our task is three-fold.  First, to reduce the vulnerability of space systems and their supporting physical and electronic infrastructure, including through better situational awareness.  Secondly, to be able to reconstitute capabilities rapidly in the event of disruption or destruction, or to develop back-up systems based on a clear understanding of where and how capabilities and infrastructure are dependent on space.  Thirdly, I would suggest that continued international engagement on how to achieve effective and layered missile defence is important.  But the point is that we should not seek counter-space capabilities at the expense of enhancing the resiliency of our space architectures and of taking effective steps to ensure their protection and the protection of our territory.


Let me conclude.

The extent of UK's reliance on foreign space assets is no longer sustainable.  There is a real need to safeguard sovereign requirements that are currently met through the assets of other countries by a more vigorous programme of our own, making us a more valued partner.  With French return to NATO we should try to contrive a situation in which cooperation with US or France does not become a zero sum game. Western allies cannot in any case afford this. 

As a country the UK has maintained significant design expertise and small satellites in particular present a viable way forward, but these skills must not be lost. We should invest further in this strength in which there is scope for significant export earnings as well as strategic advantage.

Finally, there needs to be much greater understanding of the dependencies on space of essential sectors and greater focus on improving the resilience of space systems in the round.  Much of this will necessarily involve active international cooperation and management.

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