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A Space Defence Strategy for the UK


Like recreational spaceflight, moon bases and aliens, a UK Space Defence Strategy (DSS) has failed to appear despite promises that it’s just around the corner.  However, we may see one unveiled at the Defence Space Conference in May ahead of the 2020 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). This article discusses what the DSS might look like and offers some suggestions.  To begin though, we need to consider why the UK needs a DSS in the first place.

The Threat

Competition in space is nothing new, indeed it was Cold War competition between the US and USSR which led to the first steps on the moon. However, the way governments think about space is changing.  It is no long regarded as a sanctuary from where we may safely observe the Earth, but rather a warfighting domain like the land, air or sea. This change is being driven by two factors.

The first is the increasing recognition of how much we have come to depend on satellites, not just to support military operations, but for almost every aspect of daily life.  In February 2015, space was designated as UK Critical National Infrastructure (CNI)1 with UK National Space Policy noting that ‘our everyday lives depend on space technology: it is woven into society. We rely on satellites to connect our global society, forecast the weather, manage our finances, access the internet, expand broadband coverage, trade, deliver television signals, underpin national security and assist aid efforts’2. A loss or major degradation of space-based infrastructure would have devastating humanitarian and economic consequences, never mind the impact on our ability to conduct military operations on Earth.

The second driver is the increasing risk posed to satellites by the proliferation of Anti-Satellite (ASAT) capabilities, in addition to natural hazards.  In 2007 China destroyed a redundant weather satellite with a ground-launched ASAT missile and in March 2019 India became the latest nation to demonstrate an ASAT capability. The growing threat to satellites isn’t limited to kinetic kills from missiles either.  Both Russian and Chinese satellites have been observed maneuvering into close proximity with other satellites.  This raises the possibility killing a satellite without a kinetic kill vehicle (which could have unintended consequences by creating thousands of pieces of debris) but rather by jamming, blinding, or dragging it out of orbit. 

However, the biggest threat to satellites may not be from malicious actors, but rather an accidental collision.  Space is becoming increasingly congested with 170 million objects in orbit according to the European Space Agency.  Most of these are very small, but at the speed objects travel in orbit, even very small objects can cause catastrophic damage.  A collision (or indeed an ASAT missile) would produce more fast-moving debris which in turn could create in a chain reaction rendering orbits unusable for generations – a scenario first proposed by NASA scientist Donald Kessler in 1978.

What is the UK doing now?

The last few years have seen the announcement of several initiatives as the UK woke up to the issue of space defence. In May 2018, the RAF was formally assigned responsibility for command and control of UK space operations, taking the lead in Space Situational Awareness3 and Space Control4 whilst Strategic Command maintains responsibility for Space Support to Operations5.  In 2018 the MoD published a leaflet setting out its thinking on space as it announced that a new strategy was expected that summer. The leaflet laid out three objectives: 

  • Enhancing resilience and operational effectiveness.
  • Optimising space support to the front line. 
  • Supporting wider government activities. 

However, UK efforts remain modest with less than 600 personnel working on space contrasting with more than 30,000 in the USAF.  Indeed, the UK is heavily dependent on the US in space, more so than in all other areas with the possible exception of the nuclear deterrent.  This would be a timely moment to have a look at US Space Strategy.

What about the Americans? 

In early 2018, while Gavin Williamson was promising a DSS, Donald Trump was unveiling one.  The Trump Space Strategy is based around four pillars:

  • Transform to more resilient space architecture
  • Strengthen deterrence and warfighting options. 
  • Improve foundational capabilities, structures & processes.
  • Foster conducive domestic and international environments.

More resilient space architecture will be achieved through ‘resiliency, defences and reconstitution’. Hardening satellites makes sense, not just against human actors but the many natural hazards in space. Reconstitution is also a sensible strategy for those who can afford it, having the ability to quickly repair or replace satellites. 

To preserve its satellite capability the US relies heavily on deterrence.  It has made clear that it will respond to an attack on its satellites at the time and in the domain of its choosing.  However, the unmanned nature of satellites may be a problem.  As we have already seen with uninhabited aircraft, the absence of a human crew member means adversaries may consider the risk of destroying them to be lowered.  There is also a problem of attribution.  Whilst it may be obvious who launched a direct assent ASAT, it may be less easy to attribute an electronic, laser or cyber attack6 . The reality is we don’t yet know how effectively deterrence theory will translate into space, the problem with space theory being that there is very little history to draw on.  There is also a question of how collective deterrence will work in space.  Collective deterrence is the bedrock of NATO security, but when the NATO geographic area was defined by the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949, nobody thought about extending it vertically into space.  

The third pillar is to improve foundational capabilities, structures & processes. The US has gone further than most in rearranging its military institutional architecture to accommodate space.  In December 2019, Trump announced the creation of Space Force as the sixth branch of the US military, sitting within the Department of the Air Force in much the same way as the Marine Corps sits within the Navy Department.  The role of Space Force is to generate forces for the latest unified combatant command (Space Command) which was reestablished in August 2019.

After being sworn in as the first Chief of Space Operations by Vice President of the United States Michael Pence, General John Raymond addresses the audience in the Executive Eisenhower Office Building, Washington, D.C., Jan 14, 2020. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Andy Morataya)

The final pillar is to foster conducive domestic and international environments and this presents the greatest opportunity for the UK.  The US is keen to involve its closest allies in its space capability, for example including the UK as a coalition partner in Op Olympic Defender, its effort to counter hostile actors in space.  The RAF and USAF also have personnel embedded in each other’s space operations centres. Such is the importance of the US to UK Space Security that this relationship must sit at its heart.  This brings us neatly back to a UK Space Strategy for the UK.

A Strategy for the UK

The vision set out in the 2018 leaflet was ‘to secure freedom of action in space, fully exploiting its military and civil potential’7 and this is as good a starting point as any. Securing freedom of action depends on the twin roles of Space Situational Awareness and Space Control.  The former will depend on our ability to remain plugged into the US Combined Space Operations Centre at Vandenberg Air Force Base which means continuing to have something useful to bring to the table.  The UK already has personnel embedded at Vandenberg and a UK Space strategy should increase investment in space specialists.  This will be challenging given that Defence is competing with a growing civilian space sector in a small pool.  The RAF should consider creating a new branch so that space specialists have clear career path which makes best use of their expertise.  This branch would also be ideally suited for lateral entry to provide a free exchange of ideas between the civilian space sectors.   The RAF should also increase its investment in sensors such as RAF Fylingdales, and the C2 within the UK Air & Space Operations centre at RAF High Wycombe.

Space Control is split into defensive space control (DSC) and offensive space control (OSC).  For the former, the focus should be on resilience to make the UK’s critical national infrastructure in space less vulnerable to threats, both natural and human. Accepting however that there is little that can currently be done to counter an ASAT, defence will also be through deterrence.  Here, the UK should seek to influence NATO to announce that an attack in space would be treated as an armed attack under Article 5 (as it has already done for cyberspace). Space systems comprise three segments: space-based, ground-based and the link between them.  With no ASAT capability (or declared plans to acquire one) UK OSC will need to depend on targeting the ground segment or link (perhaps through cyber attack).

With the RAF leading on securing freedom of action in space, Strategic Command should focus on its exploitation.  This should build on the success of Carbonite-2 and NovaSAR-1 (launched in 2018) to give the UK a full sovereign ISR capability. As Dr Bowen notes ‘British space-based ISR would be able to provide new capabilities as a priority for UK military needs without having to rely almost totally on allied assets as it currently does, and unlike navigation signals, friendly ISR assets can be overburdened with excessive tasking and British needs can be pushed down the priority list for allied ISR tasking and analysis’ 8. However, there will be other ways in which space can be exploited and Strategic Command should be exploring these as part of the DSS.  Are there any other ways in which space-based platforms can confer a military advantage on Earth beyond the five roles set out in current doctrine?

Finally, space power includes the industrial base, just as maritime power includes a shipbuilding industry.  The DSS should also explain how Defence will contribute to the UK National Space Policy  and support its ambition to grow the UK space sector to £40 Billion by 20309.  The UK is already carving out a successful niche in small satellites and the DSS should support this.


A UK DSS is long overdue. Space is essential not just for the UK’s military capability, but for almost every aspect of our lives.  The DSS needs to set out how Defence will contribute to safeguarding this critical national infrastructure as well as exploiting space to support military operations on Earth.  The UK will continue to be dependent on the US, so it is essential that the DSS is coherent with the US National Space Strategy and ensures that the UK has something useful to offer as an ally.  However, the UK needs to further develop sovereign capabilities as well. Finally it needs to contribute to the UK civilian space sector and play its part in developing the expertise on which both depend.  Given the critical importance of space, not including a comprehensive DSS in the 2020 SDSR would be a serious mistake.  

Cover Photo: A Royal Air Force space operator oversees a space situational awareness demonstration at Lockheed Martin’s Centre for Innovation in Suffolk, United States, during Global Sentinel 19. Credit: USSC

Andy Netherwood

Andy served for 26 years in the RAF with operational tours flying C130 & C17 and staff tours in Strategy, Policy & Plans, Capability Development and on the Directing Staff at the UK Defence Academy. He is now the Air & Space power editor for the Wavell Room. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyNetherwood.




  1. Stickings, A., 2018, What Will the Defence Space Strategy Tell us About the UK’s Space Ambitions?, RUSI.
  2. HMG, 2015, National Space Policy, P.8
  3. Space situational awareness (SSA) underpins all other space roles, as it provides an understanding of the space environment. It enables the timely assessment of and response to space threats, risks and events, both natural and man-made. It is broken down into four core functions: detect, track and identify; threat warning and attack assessment; characterisation; and data integration and exploitation (JDP 0-30, UK Air and Space Power, 2nd Edition, p.93).
  4. Space control involves affecting adversary space capabilities as well as assuring our own access to space. The nature of the space environment is such that total control is not feasible for any single actor; space dominance has little relevance, given the scale and scope of the environment. However, it is necessary to achieve sufficient control to assure freedom of action in space. Space control is split into two key components: offensive space control and defensive space control (JDP 0-30, UK Air and Space Power, 2nd Edition, p.95).
  5. Space support to operations enables and enhances UK military capabilities, providing critical support to the combat effectiveness of the joint force. It is divided into five core functions: Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance; Positioning, Navigation & Timing; Satellite Communications; Missile Warning & Tracking; Environmental Monitoring (JDP 0-30, UK Air and Space Power, 2nd Edition, p.99).
  6. For more on threats to satellites and defences against them see Chang, M., Protecting Next-Generation Military Satellite Communications with an Innovative Disaggregation Approach: Delivering Major Gains through Business Change, Air and Space Power Review Vol 22:2.
  7. MoD, 2018, Defence Space Strategy Headlines.
  8. Bowen, B. E., 2019, A Familiar Frontier: British Defence Strategy and Space Power, Air and Space Power Review Vol 22:2.
  9. HMG, 2015, National Space Policy, p.4.

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