For Heaven’s Sake – the UK’s Militarisation of Space


“UK Space Command, established in April 2021, oversees the military space programme and is closely linked with US Space Command and US Space Force. While the UK typically frames military developments as being for defensive purposes, they are also capable of offensive use.”

By Dave Webb, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND)

Space is now big business and set to become a trillion dollar industry by 2040. The commercial space sector has expanded, the cost of launches has decreased and the UK is now treating space as an area of serious financial interest. The government has also recognised that space is now crucial for military operations. So, the MoD now has a Space Directorate, which works closely with the UK Space Agency and is responsible for the military space policy and international coordination.

UK Space Command, established in April 2021, oversees the military space programme and is closely linked with US Space Command and US Space Force. While the UK typically frames military developments as being for defensive purposes, they are also capable of offensive use.

The RAF operates the National Air and Space Operations Centre (NASOC), with responsibilities which include space surveillance, and has seconded personnel to commercial sector operators such as Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd and Virgin Orbit to help gain further insight into space operations and to influence future developments.

In September 2021 the government published a National Space Strategy aimed at developing the space economy and protecting the UK’s interests in space and in February 2022 the MoD published its Defence Space Strategy, outlining “how Defence will protect the UK’s national interests in space in an era of ever-growing threats”.  The strategy announced a portfolio of programmes for developing space assets and infrastructure and some £6.4 billion has been allocated over the next ten years for various military space programmes.

Military Partnerships

Not surprisingly, the MoD works closely with US forces on space issues. The US Space Force’s ‘Operation Olympic Defender’ was established to build international partnerships to ‘deter adversaries and hostile acts in space’ and the UK was the first to join in 2019. Last April the US and UK Space Commands signed an Enhanced Space Cooperation memorandum of understanding (ESC MOU), a framework for deeper military cooperation in the space domain. It calls for exchanging more information, harmonising military space requirements, and identifying potential joint activities.

The UK is also represented at the NATO Space Centre at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, and UK Space Command carries the UK’s commitment in the Combined Space Operations initiative, alongside Australia, Canada, France, Germany, New Zealand and the US.

Space centres supported by UK government – from UK National Space Strategy, 2021

UK Spaceports

The UK government has awarded grants totalling nearly £40 million to enable the launch of small satellites from the UK and to develop several ‘spaceports’ in Scotland, Wales and England.

The UK Space Agencycurrently supportsthe development of 3 of the 7 proposed space launch sites:

  • SaxaVord Spaceport – Unst, Shetland Islands.
  • Space Hub Sutherland – Sutherland.
  • Spaceport Cornwall – Newquay Airport, Cornwall.

In addition, Llanbedr Airfield/Snowdonia Aerospace Centre looks set to achieve spaceport certification by the end of the year. The Welsh Government released a National Space Strategy for Wales last year, and identified a number of locations, including Cardiff, Newport, Llanbedr and Aberporth as benefitting from high-skilled jobs created by companies such as Raytheon, Qinetiq, Quioptiq, and Airbus Defence and Space.

Lockheed-Martin is developing its Saxavord Shetland Space Centre for vertical launch operations and the first small satellite launch is planned for next year. Virgin Orbit is also planning to use Spaceport Cornwall for horizontal launches for Welsh start-up company Space Forge next year.

Although many of these launches may be for commercial companies, space use has evolved into a fuzzy military/commercial collaboration and Alexandra Stickings, a space policy and security analyst at RUSI, believes that “the proposed spaceports would need the MoD as a customer to survive as well as securing contracts with companies such as Lockheed”.

One of the issues fuelling concerns by local residents over spaceport operations is their impact on the environment. Building the spaceports severely affects the local ecology and the launching of rockets produces pollution at ground level and in the upper atmosphere. Considerable amounts of CO2 are also released by the development and manufacture of rockets and from the production, storage and burning of rocket fuels.

There is no agreement so far on what constitutes responsible behaviour with regards to humanity’s presence in space, and the field of space ethics needs further urgent work – ‘ground rules’ need to be established before the commercial and military exploitation of space moves ahead without regard to environmental and ethical factors. A recent report from CND and Dronewars UK called “For Heaven’s Sake, Examining the UK’s Militarisation of Space” was launched in June and a copy of the report can be downloaded here; an accompanying webinar is to be held on August 23rd at 7pm –  register you place here.

Featured image: For Heavens Sake – examining the militarisation of space. Photo credit: CND & Dronewars UK/UK Space Agency

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