The new battlespace: Latest technology drives defence space strategies

An increasing number of military systems are now dependent on space technology, with communications, imagery, precision targeting and friendly force tracking all reliant on satellites and space-based services. 

The same is true for many aspects of modern living, with space technology enabling a diverse range of civilian activities from agriculture to GPS navigation, banking and transportation. 

This growing reliance saw Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announce the launch of the UK’s first Defence Space Strategy and hand over command and control of UK military space operations to defend the UK’s interests in space to RAF Air Command. 

It is envisaged that with Air Command assuming this responsibility, it will lead to the development of a strong pool of qualified and experienced space personnel, engaging internationally in support of these responsibilities. Leads for the management of space-enabled capabilities will remain unchanged, although an important part of the strategy will be to enhance the overall co-ordination of activity across the defence space enterprise. 

Joint Forces Command will continue to be responsible for satellite communications as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, and Air Command for Space Situational Awareness and Space Control capabilities. 

The new strategy is expected to outline plans to protect UK operations against emerging space-based threats such as jamming of civilian satellites used for broadcasters and satellite navigation to support military capabilities. As the reliance on satellites continues to grow, any disruption could lead to severe consequences, whether by natural or man-made hazards or intentional threats from hostile states.  

The Defence Space Strategy will examine how the UK can work with allies across NATO and the Five-Eyes Partnership to protect and defend mutual space interests. 

The Defence Secretary also outlined his plans to increase the 500 personnel currently working in the UK defence space sector by a fifth over the next five years, taking the total to over 600. 

Mr Williamson explained the move: “We must make sure we are primed and ready to deter and counter the intensifying threats to our everyday life that are emerging in space. That’s why I’m announcing the RAF is taking the lead in this area and why we plan to increase the number of personnel covering space. 

“Satellite technology is not just a crucial tool for our Armed Forces but vital to our way of life, whether that be access to our mobile phones, the internet or television. It is essential we protect our interests and assets from potential adversaries who seek to cause major disruption and do us harm.” 

The threat from superpowers such as Russia and China as they pursue their own space warfighting capabilities as well as other actors looking to carry out counter-space capabilities such as jamming, dazzling and cyber attacks means the UK is far from alone in turning its attention to space in matters of defence. 

Following the news that Russian reconnaissance satellites had encroached on the Athena-Fidus Franco-Italian communications satellite in a spying operation in 2017, the French Joint Space Command and Ministry of Defence are expected to hand over a space defence strategy for government approval before the end of the year. Little is known of what will be contained within the document but it is expected to focus on the necessity to provide greater protection to French satellites. 

Unsurprisingly, the world’s biggest spender on defence, the United States, recently announced its intention to create a Space Force – effectively a new arm of the US military on a par with the more traditional forces of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard. 

President Trump made the announcement during a meeting of the National Space Council on 18 June 2018. Mr Trump said it was not enough that the United States had a presence in space; it should instead exert ‘dominance’. 

Vice President Mike Pence fleshed the plan out in greater detail in a speech at the Pentagon in August. He said the Space Force would meet “the rising security threats our nation faces in space today and in the future”. 

Following the Vice President’s speech, the Pentagon in turn released a report detailing how the US Department of Defense will support these ambitions. 

The report states: “It is imperative that the United States adapts its policies, doctrine, and capabilities to protect our interests. Towards that end, the Department of Defense will marshal spaces resources into a Space Force. The Space Force will protect our economy through deterrence of malicious activities, ensure our space systems meet national security requirements, and provide vital capabilities to joint and coalition forces across the spectrum of conflict.” 

Currently, the responsibility for US space operations sits with the Air Force Space Command. The move to create an independent Space Force has drawn comparisons with the birth of the US Air Force from the US Army. The USAF began life as the US Army Air Corps – the aerial warfare section of the US Army – but the advancing technology and growing strategic importance led to the Air Force becoming the fifth branch of the US Armed Forces in 1947. 

So too, the pressing need to protect critical assets in space, especially in light of the actions of Russia and China, means that the creation of a dedicated space branch of the US military feels inevitable.  

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