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

By Dr. David Webb of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space

This post first appeared as an article in the Summer/Fall 2022 edition of the Global Network’s “Space Alert” quarterly newsletter.

I have been working on behalf of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) with Peter Burt from Dronewars UK on a new joint publication called “For Heaven’s Sake: Examining the UK’s Militarisation of Space”. It was launched in June and looks at the UK’s emerging military space programme and considers the governance, environmental, and ethical issues involved.

The UK’s space programme began in 1952 and the first UK satellite, Ariel 1, was launched in 1962. Black Arrow, a British rocket for launching satellites, was developed during the 1960s and was used for four launches from the Woomera Range Complexin Australia between 1969 and 1971. The final launch was to launch Prospero, the only British satellite to be placed in orbit using a UK rocket in 1971, although the government had by then cancelled the UK space programme. Blue Streak, the UK ballistic missile programme, had been cancelled in 1960andspace projects were considered too expensive to continue. 50 years on and things have changed.

Space is now big business – the commercial space sector has expanded and the cost of launches has decreased. The UK is now treating space as an area of serious interest. The government has also recognised that space is now crucial for military operations. So, the Ministry of Defence (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 ,is in charge of 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 Royal Air Force (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 space programmes including:

  • Upgrading the UK’s Skynet military communications satellites network.
  • Developing a network of small satellites for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and, possibly, target selection.
  • Developing and enhancing command and control of space assets.
  • Developing Space Domain Awareness (SDA) capabilities for detecting, tracking, and identifying objects in orbit.
Space centres supported by UK government
– from UK National Space Strategy, 2021

As mentioned in previous GN newsletters, the UK government has also awarded grants totally nearly £40 million to enable the launch of small satellites from the UK and to develop several ‘spaceports’ in Scotland, Wales and England (see figure).

The UK Space Agency currently supports the development of 3 of the 7 proposed space launch sites:

  • SaxaVord Spaceport (previously Shetland Space Centre) – Unst, Shetland Islands.
  • Space Hub Sutherland – Sutherland.
  • Spaceport Cornwall – Newquay Airport, Cornwall.

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

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 the Royal United Services Institute in London, believes that the Shetland and Sutherland spaceports will need military contracts to be viable. She said “I am of the opinion that the proposed spaceports would need the MoD as a customer to survive as well as securing contracts with companies such as Lockheed” and the military will want to diversify their launch capabilitiesso the Scottish locations could provide an option for certain future missions.”  She also warned that: “There is also a possibility that if these sites become a reality, there will be pressure on the MoD to support them even if the cost is more than other providers.”

One of the issues fueling concerns by local residents over spaceport operations is the environmental impacts. The GN has recently been highlighting these in our newsletters, videos and webinars. The launching of rockets is producing environmental problems, polluting the ground and the atmosphere with fuel and exhaust fumes.  Considerable amounts of CO2 are also released by the development and manufacture of rockets and from producing, storing 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.

To address some of the gaps in current space policy, the report makes the following recommendations:

  • More public discussion and debate about the commercial and military use of space and its benefits and downsides.
  • The UK Space Agency and Ministry of Defence should develop codes of good ethical practice for their space operations and associated ground-based developments.
  • More research into the environmental effects of space operations, both short and long term, on earth and in space, is needed.
  • The UK Space Agency should not provide funding or support for projects where high ethical and environmental risks can be foreseen.
  • Meaningful environmental impact assessments, including the impact on space, should be conducted before the development of spaceports.
  • The UK government should continue work internationally to promote responsible behaviour in space, whilst ensuring its own conduct in space is beyond reproach.

Download a copy of the report at https://cnduk.org/resources/for-heavens-sake-examining-the-uks-militarisation-of-space/

Dr. Dave Webb is the board convener of the Global Network. He was the recent past chair of the UK’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and lives in Leeds, England.

Top image courtesy: For Heaven’s Sake: Examining the UK’s Militarisation of Space – (cnduk.org)

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