Image courtesy Airbus.
The RAF inaugurated a new department at the end of July 2021: the UK Space Command. While it has not yet reached the stage of military astronauts, the new department will overhaul current space defence procedures and protect the country’s interests in the future.
Let us take a look at UK Space Command and what it means for national defence.
Space has already been labelled as the next military domain, unsurprisingly. So much of our daily lives rely on satellites that they now hold significant strategic interest for the world’s greatest military powers.
That, in short, is the justification behind the UK Space Command. The government labels it as a vital step in protecting the UK’s satellite networks –military and civilian. That is why it has promised to invest an additional £1.4 billion in the next ten years.
Space Command is currently not so much a revolution as a consolidation of existing departments. From RAF High Wycombe, “Space Operators” will control operations such as Skynet, RAF Fylingdales, and other facilities. In the future, there will be developments on what the department does, but, for now, it is primarily a centralisation of existing space operations.
The militarization of space is fast on the rise. In 2019, Donald Trump announced the now-infamous US Space Force to combat rising threats from China and Russia. Both countries have demonstrated anti-satellite technology in recent years, arguably shifting Cold War anxieties to a new landscape.
UK Space Command will not produce or manage space weapons. Rather, it will be the centre of the country’s threat identification systems. In short, it is a defensive facility instead of an offensive one. While the USA is locked in an arms race with its perceived adversaries, the UK simply plans to manage the threats more effectively.
As mentioned, Skynet is a vital component of the UK’s space defence strategy. Unlike other countries, we do not own a military satellite network. Instead, the MOD leases satellites from Airbus, the creator of Skynet.
Airbus recently announced the completion of the Preliminary Design Review of Skynet 6A, its latest update. It will replace the existing Skynet 5 network and will provide better communications and processing facilities. The latest phase of Skynet will launch in 2025 following extensive testing alongside the MOD. It will be a crucial component of the UK’s military capabilities over the next decade.
The UK’s Space Interests
The UK’s space strategy is a simple one: to protect the country’s assets from international threats. Unlike the USA, Russia and China, which are on the offensive, the UK appears to be taking a far more defensive position.
Our need to protect the UK space sector is obvious: we rely on it so much that any attack – regardless of how minor – could be devastating. Most of our military and civilian technology relies on robust satellite networks, and any outages will grind us to a halt.
So, what will the next decade of UK space defence look like? That is a difficult question to answer, as we are seeing changes that would have seemed surprising ten years ago. One certainty is that UK Space Command will be a much bigger department and will have a big task on its hands.