Chief of the Air Staff opens first Defence Space Conference as RAF assumes control of UK military space

21st May 2018

Sir Stephen Hillier, Chief of the Air Staff, keynote address at Defence Space 2018

Good morning ladies and gentlemen and thank you for the opportunity to speak to you at this inaugural Defence Space Conference.  My congratulations to the Air Power Association and colleagues at the Ministry of Defence, the Air Staff and in the aerospace industry, who have together brought the idea of this Conference to life – no mean feat, given the abbreviated planning time that was available.  It shows what can be achieved quickly if there’s a combined will and a spirit of partnership.  In a way, this Conference is therefore emblematic of our modern approach to capability development and the vital importance of pace – in the space domain and indeed across the multi-domain spectrum.  It’s a theme I’ll return to shortly.  But for now, well done again for organising the first of what I hope will become a standing feature in the air and space power calendar.  It needs to be, because the UK – and UK Defence specifically – is becoming ever more focused on, engaged in, and reliant upon, this vital domain.


I don’t think I need to remind anyone in this audience that 2018 is a rather important year for the Royal Air Force.  But to allay your fears, I do not intend to hijack this Conference by waxing lyrical about the RAF’s centenary – you will either have had plenty of chances already to hear me speak on that theme this year – or you’re going to!  What I mean instead is that it is an important year for the Royal Air Force in relation to Space.  Like you, I read the aerospace press, and I know some people are asking whether, during the next 100 years, the Royal Air Force will become the Royal Air and Space Force.   In my view, we’re already there in fact, albeit not in name.  We’ve actually been in Space for more than half of our existence.  From Thor Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles and the start of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning at RAF Fylingdales in the late 50s and early 60s, through to the RAF introducing the first Skynet satellite to a public audience in 1969, of all things on the children’s TV programme, Blue Peter!


But it is entirely fair to say that whilst the RAF has been doing Space for a long time, especially alongside our United States Air Force colleagues, it has not been one of our highest profile activities.  That view is not only changing, it has changed.  We know that Space has revolutionised every aspect of military endeavour, from positioning, navigation and timing, to intelligence, communications and targeting.  We know that it is through the advantages conferred by space capabilities that air power itself has become the extremely precise and efficient instrument to which we have all become accustomed in recent years.  But we also know that for too long we have regarded those benefits as being a free good – something we can exploit at will, with no real risk.  But just like in the air environment, our potential adversaries have recognised our asymmetric advantages in space, and our complete dependency on space for every aspect of our working and personal lives.  That dependency creates vulnerabilities, and we are at acute risk from those who might now seek to deny, degrade and disrupt our capabilities.  Space has always been an operational domain – indeed the recent US National Defense Strategy describes Space as a warfighting domain – but now we’re going to have to work increasingly hard to secure and assure the space capabilities on which we are utterly reliant.  We therefore need to be more resilient, efficient and innovative if we are to safeguard our operations, consolidate our advantages, and minimise the effects of aggressive actions.


Where do we start?  First we need to ensure that everyone acknowledges that a problem exists – that our dependency on space in increasing; that the threats to our use of space are also increasing; and that it is not enough therefore just to keep doing as we’ve always done.  I’m confident that UK Defence has got through this particular starting gate.  The next thing is to ensure we are properly organised to deal with the challenge.  Self-evidently, a whole of Government and Allied approach is needed, but for now let me just talk about Defence.  Space must be something that everyone, across the whole of the Defence joint enterprise, gets engaged with.  But in keeping with the Royal Air Force’s long experience and existing expertise in the space environment, the RAF leads the Defence effort to secure, control and enable the space environment, for all joint users of Space; and to lead engagement with our allies and other government departments in this respect in particular; all whilst working exceptionally closely with our colleagues in Joint Forces Command.  The parallels here with the air environment are obvious – just like we need to control the air before any joint operation can proceed and succeed, so must the same apply to space.  Indeed, the vector is increasingly towards an air-space continuum, where boundaries are becoming increasingly meaningless; and air, space and cyber are part of that integrated multi-domain effort which is at the heart of the Next Generation Air Force and Joint Force 2025.


Next we need to understand better what’s going on, in an increasingly congested and complex space environment.  So in addition to our existing capabilities at RAF Fylingdales, in SDSR15 we announced that we would be investing in new space surveillance radar capabilities, to enhance our space situational awareness, particularly in relation to our BMD capabilities.  Integral to that is getting the command and control right.  So we are in the process of doubling the size of the Space Operations Centre at RAF High Wycombe, and have just recently combined it with the existing National Air Defence Operations Centre, to create the National Air & Space Operations Centre – further underlining that continuum of air and space environments.  We are also working ever more closely with the National Space Agency and Other Government Departments, to ensure that the full security needs of our country in space are met – wherever possible in conjunction with our international partners and in line with our International Defence Engagement Strategy.  And in all cases, command and control which is flexible, agile, resilient, multi-domain.


And then we need more capability in space itself.  Resilience, efficiency and rapid capability development and deployment are at the heart of our thinking here.  As many of you will know, in January we launched our first low-earth orbit high definition imagery and video satellite, Carbonite 2, as part of Project Primus – this Concept Demonstrator was initiated and led by the RAF’s Rapid Capabilities Office in collaboration with Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd.  The satellite took just 8 months from concept to launch, exploiting commercial off-the-shelf equipment.  Weighing only 100kg and costing £4.5 million, it has been an effective and efficient demonstration of innovation, the potential of disruptive technologies, and how to balance risk versus reward.  This is only part of the broader project which is designed to allow us to better understand how to design launch and operate future space-based systems as well as to understand the potential for space to provide direct support to the future war fighter, but we have already learned an enormous amount in how we might guide further developments in this field.  Cost efficiency has its own self-evident virtues in this sort of approach, but more importantly it opens the possibility of more numerous satellites.  The concept of constellations of small satellites that can absorb attrition and be replaced quickly is attractive, giving us more of the capability resilience that we seek – just imagine what a constellation of 1 kilogram ‘cubesats’ might be able to achieve, especially set against the tumbling costs of space launch.  And getting away from ‘grand project’ satellites also gives us the potential for far more rapid and frequent deployment of new satellites, and the ability to leverage quickly off the new and emerging space technologies which the UK is already so adept at developing.


Then there is the exciting prospect for the UK also to become a leading space launch nation, offering further benefits to space resilience and reactiveness as well as presenting substantial commercial opportunities.  So the Space Industry Bill has been a hugely significant development, not only yielding substantial potential commercial and military advantages, but also I’m sure inspiring future generations of engineers, scientists and operators.

And the importance of inspiring our future brings me back to the Royal Air Force at 100.  As the Royal Air Force enters its second century, we are living up to our motto of ‘Per Ardua Ad Astra’, and aiming for the stars.  1918 marked an inflection point in the development of air power; I believe we are at a similar moment regarding space power today.  Whilst the risks and challenges to our use of space are becoming greater, so are the extraordinary opportunities which present themselves.  Our task is to ensure that the space environment is sufficiently secure to allow us properly to exploit those opportunities, for both military and commercial purposes.  Those purposes are inextricably linked, and I am convinced that the combined efforts of MOD, Government and our world-class space industry allow us to take a bold leadership position in this exciting future, not only enhancing our national security but also our national prosperity.  I am proud and excited by the part which the Royal Air Force has to play in this impressive enterprise.