UK MoD goes more boldly into space

25th May 2018

On its 100th anniversary the Royal Air Force becomes the lead service for British military space, as the UK MoD gets set to release a new Defence Space Strategy later this year. TIM ROBINSON reports from the inaugural MoD Defence Space Conference in London.

The first UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) Space Conference, organised by the Air Power Association, and held on 21-22 May in London proved to be a extremely newsworthy and significant event – as Britain starts to flex its muscles in military space matters. With a range of high level speakers from the RAF, MoD, Joint Forces Command (JFC), UK Space Agency, FCO, USAF and industry the conference covered a wide range of topics.

There is no doubt that the current diplomatic spat over UK’s involvement and access to the EU’s Galileo navigation system has focused minds in Whitehall over long-neglected security and military aspects of space and thus may have played some part in fast-tracking this conference, but there a wider trends at play here that have been building up to make this a highly topical and long overdue event.

As noted in a previous Insight blog – today the range of space threats is expanding and includes anti-satellite weapons, GPS jamming and space debris. China’s anti-satellite test in 2007 which generated a cloud of space debris, was a wake-up call that old presumptions about space as common good need to be rethought. More recently, reports of Russia jamming GPS on US aircraft over Syria, has also focused Western military minds on vulnerabilities.

What has also changed is wider society’s dependence on space too for everyday life – as well as military operations – moving critical services into an industrial base in orbit. New companies such as Uber, AirBnB, Gogo etc all rely on satellites as an essential part of their business. Many of these companies did not exist 20 or even 10 years ago, yet utilise space-based data and services to provide new business models.

On the military side, from GPS navigation debut in the 1990 Gulf War, the range of capabilities that now depend on space is staggering – with this system being one of the key enablers behind the West’s precision targeting. Yet, oddly, this civil and military dependence on space is mostly taken for granted – the vast constellations of satellites that provide the vital sinews of modern life are in a way ‘out of sight, and out of mind’.

Ther are also new economics at work too. Space is now far cheaper and spy sat capabilities that would have amazed the CIA in the Cold War, can now be built by students at university – and there is an explosion of innovation such as reusable launchers that only a few years ago would have seemed like science fiction. The UK, which until only very recently eschewed human spaceflight and launchers, to concentrate on satellites and satellite services, has also awoken to the economic potential of the global space market and is aiming to grow the UK’s share from 6.5% to 10%  by 2030, to generate £40bn a year – as well as develop its own ‘end to end’ space infrastructure with a spaceport and launch capability.

All these provide the context as to why ‘space is now too important to be left as a niche’ for defence users as one speaker put it.


RAF join the Guardians of the Galaxy

RAF Chief ACM Sir Stephen Hillier warned that the UK was at ‘at acute risk’ due to emerging threats in orbit. (MoD)

Headline news on the first day of the conference was from RAF Chief of the Air Staff, ACM Sir Stephen Hillier, who observed that just as 1918 was an ‘inflection point’ for air power with the formation of the Royal Air Force, so 2018 may be another inflection point in the development of British space power – with the now RAF assuming the lead for the UK’s military space efforts.

He noted that: “whilst the RAF has been doing Space for a long time, especially alongside our USAF colleagues, it has not been one of our highest profile activities.  That view is not only changing, it has changed.” Echoing his previous comments about ‘contested aerial battlespace’ and the RAF returning to  ‘fighting for control of the skies’ he said: “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.”

To address this, the RAF will be doubling the size of its Space Operations Centre (SpOC) in High Wycombe from around 20 personnel to about 40 as well as boosting space-related posts across the MoD, growing these from 500 to 600 in the next few years. SpOC too will be combined with the existing National Air Defence Operations Centre to create the  National Air & Space Operations Centre. Deeper collaboration and partnership with UK agencies, industry and international partners is also part of the plan. In another clue to how the UK is now treating space as a ‘key operational domain’ (joining air, land, maritime and cyber) recently the RAF graduated its very first space QWI (Qualified Weapons Instructor) – a ‘Top Gun’-style badge of excellence for operators. These changes will see the UK capabilities evolve and expand from its historic ‘early warning’ and limited space situational awareness role, into developing future tactics and doctrine, space control and potentially running exercises itself.

The need for better and more enhanced space situational awareness (SSA) was also shown graphically in another presentation that day, which displaying orbital tracks of ‘proximity operations’ of two Chinese satellites in February. These satellites were observed moving to within 100-200m of each other orbital manoeuvres – a close approach that, if conducted towards a friendly satellite, might be the prelude to an anti-satellite attack.

ACM Hillier thus stressed the need to build new resilience in space to counter these vulnerabilities and new threats. Leveraging the latest  technology such as 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” he said.

To that end, Defence Procurement Minister, Guto Bebb MP also announced at the Conference that the UK was working on a new Defence Space Strategy, which would be published in the summer. This joins the existing UK Combat Air Strategy which is also set to be released around July.


Going solo after Galileo?

Procurement Minister Guto Bebb said that the UK’s first defence space strategy would be published this summer. (MoD) 

A key topic of discussion over the two-days of the conference was the high-level political stand-off between the UK and Brussels over access to and involvement in, the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation system – particularly its most accurate and security-sensitive PRS signal.

Addressing the conference on this issue, Minister for Defence Procurement, Guto Bebb MP said: “We’re keen to remain a part of the Galileo project in which we were instrumental from the start” adding, “it makes no sense for the Commission to exclude us from this programme – especially when many of its key modules and software were developed and built by UK experts. By denying us the level of participation in Galileo we need to meet our mutual security requirements – which is well beyond simply having permission to use the secure signal – the Commission risk setting the programme back a number of years. It would no doubt also increase its cost.”

For the option of the UK going it alone, Professor Sir Martin Sweeting, whose company Surrey Satellites (now part of Airbus) has been heavily involving in building Galileo warned that while is was ‘perfectly feasible’ for a ‘UK GPS’ system to be ‘cost effective, it isn’t going to be cheap” adding that “it will cost more that our contribution to Galileo”.

Cubesats then are out, given the high power consumption, medium Earth orbits and atomic clocks needed for GPS/Galileo style navigation system – and with the UK’s global interests, worldwide coverage is also needed. However, one alternate suggestion heard on the fringes was that instead of dedicated satellites, a UK Galileo alternative could perhaps piggyback on other satellites (eg larger commercial telecommunications) as a hosted payload. That could help to reduce costs.

Another way in which a UK Galileo alternative might be made more affordable is by sharing the cost – especially with the MoD now facing what is reported to be a £20bn ‘Black Hole’ in its budget – throwing procurement decisions into array once again. Asked by AEROSPACE on how Britain’s military could possibly afford a bespoke satellite navigation system on its own, Will Jessett, the UK MoDs Director for Strategic Planning,  said: “There is a presumption that it would come from defence budget – that’s not necessarily so”, hinting that innovative solutions were being mulled.

So could the UK MoD perhaps share the cost of a GPS/Galileo alternative with other Whitehall departments or even commercial partners? Certainly the conference highlighted other possible funding models. Paul Wells, from satellite operator SES, gave a presentation on GovSat-1 which entered service earlier this year as a public-private partnership to provide secure military comms for government and institutional users – with Luxembourg using this satellite as part of its commitment to NATO. Meanwhile, Colonel Stig Nillson, from the Norwegian MoD’s Space Office, revealed how Norway’s Ministry of Transport contributes to its AIS satellites to help track and monitor shipping in the Artic – an area of prime concern. Could the UK also perhaps tap into these approaches for a lower-cost, yet still global satellite navigation system?


A Space FIVE EYES (and allies)

Information sharing between US and its space allies is set to increase. (USAF) 

Yet paradoxically, while recent media reports have emphasised strategic and political splits between the UK, EU and US (Galileo and ‘America First’) co-operation in military space between like minded countries is set to expand and deepen, with more sharing of information between the US and coalition partners on space situational awareness, emerging threats.

Speaking at the conference, Major General Pamela Lincoln, from USAF’s Space Command revealed that this July, the US will transition up a ‘Space CAOC’ at Vandenberg AFB in California, moving it from a ‘Joint’ to a ‘Combined’ Space Ops Centre. This will embed allies such as Australia, Canada and the UK at a more permanent, deeper level within the US Space Command structure, and allow enhanced sharing of threats, and knowledge. In fact for space, the traditional intelligence 5 EYES (US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand) and been joined by FIVE EYES +2 (France and Germany) and +4 (adding South Korea and Japan) as an alliance of like-minded nations who are working together to ensure that space remains ‘free and safe’ for commercial, scientific and government users.

Indeed, the UK already participates in US Red Flag-style ‘space wargames’ called Schreiver which seek to look ahead ten years to develop tactics and doctrine for future space operations. Last October’s SW17 wargame for example, depicted ‘a notional peer space and cyberspace competitor seeking to achieve strategic goals by exploiting those domains’.

These partnership and cooperation is also not one way – despite the US’s huge and extensive military space experience, personnel and assets. USAF Space Command officers are embedded in the UK’s small space command structure, with an officer in the RAF’s SpOC, and two other US liaison officers at RAF Fylingdales and JFC.

Most noteworthy too, from Maj Gen Lincoln’s presentation was that the Pentagon is seeking to open up and share even more with its international space allies – with a high level mandate to shift from NOFORN (no foreign eyes) to ‘YESFORN’. This also includes leveraging the newest, most innovative and affordable technology from the commercial sector too – opening up potentially lucrative opportunities for the UK’s dynamic space industry in meeting these requirements. Indeed, Space-I’s Richard Blain, the commercial partner for the UK MoDs Carbonite-2 satellite revealed how this British-built satellite, the first to deliver commercial HD colour video imagery from space, was front page news at a US space symposium in April this year.

A more focused UK defence space strategy then, might also provide a boost for the British Government’s ‘Prosperity Agenda’ – with Carissa Christensen, CEO of consultants Bryce Space and Technology alo highlighting the potential for the UK to integrate economic development and its defence space strategy – a synergy, she said that even the US had not embraced.

On the military side, what is clear is that the close cooperation of US and UK air forces (and coalition allies) from countless Red Flags, deep cooperation in COACs (and the global F-35 programme) which has been honed over the past two decades in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria is now being replicated in an informal coalition of ‘Western space nations’ – extending the air domain into space.


Does the UK need a Starfleet Academy?

There is as yet, no career path for military space professionals in the UK armed forces. 

Paradoxically, one of the biggest challenges to Uk military space realising its ambitions is not technology, nor even funding (given some of the innovative approaches from the commercial sector) but one of personnel. At the moment the UK’s ‘military space’ personnel is tiny (500) compared with the majority being in space-related posts (such as ISR or communications), rather than having ‘space’ in their job title. As one participant wryly observed, once outside this small cadre of skilled and extremely enthusiastic professionals, the level of knowledge about military space operations and capabilities drops off very rapidly.

Part of this is the temporary nature of postings. In the UK, there is no dedicated career path for RAF (or other services) personnel to specialise in space and rise through the ranks. The armed services too are ‘fishing in the same pool’ for skilled space, astrophysics and engineering graduates as the UK’s dynamic and fast-growing space industry, which now includes launchers, spaceports, AI, data, in-orbit servicing as well as building and operating satellites.

Several presentations then, highlighted the need for the UK to build and grow its military ‘space cadre’ of human talent. ‘Space apprenticeships’ may be one way of increasing the talent pool to train future RAF ‘Jedi Knights’. A popular suggestion was to increase contacts, exchanges and work placements between the armed forces and industry – allowing operators to build their knowledge and skills and move between the private sector and MoD roles much more fluidly. Another idea was that of ‘space reservists’ allowing the UK armed forces to tap into industry’s knowledge through individuals who could serve part-time.

Echoing these themes of education and training, AVM Johnny Stringer, Chief of Staff at Joint Forces Command, laid the case for perhaps a future British civil/military ’Space Academy’ which might at the one end train ‘space’ apprentices, and at the other, end produce PhDs. More nearer term, UK doctrine development now needs to start thinking more fully about space – what for example – does deterrence and coercion look like in the space environment?

Yet if the UK is struggling with finding enough ‘military space’ professionals, it is not alone. Despite its vast resources, the US is also facing a similar challenge in recruiting space experts – on top of shortages of pilots. The solution, (put forward in more than one session) is to leverage advances in advanced AI, machine learning  and quantum computing to help process the vast amounts of data and imagery generated by today’s and tomorrow’s satellites. Failure to embrace this analytical revolution, as one speaker warned would mean ‘space-based product is left on the cutting room floor’.


Disruptive tech in orbit

In 2016, BAE Systems revealed a concept for a SABRE-powered hypersonic ISR vehicle. (BAE Systems) 

Perhaps nowhere (apart from computing/IT) does the turnaround in where the ‘cutting edge’ of technology has shifted from the military to the private sector is best exemplified than in space. ICBMs, spy satellites, satellite communications and GPS were all once the tightly guarded domain of  Cold War superpowers, yet today a teenagers bedroom may have faster and bigger bandwidth than an aircraft carrier – with private companies fusing satellite sensor imagery with ‘big data’ to provide insight for insurance companies, online dating, car satnavs and precision approaches at airports.

These ‘New Space’ entrepreneurs, with Musk, Bezos and Branson as the billionaire figureheads are now attracting vast amounts of money and investment into the space sector. These are ‘seismic changes’ said James Breugger of the UK-based Seraphim Space Fund, who said that “in the past two years more venture capital had been invested in space than in the past 15 years”. Bryce Space’s  Christensen also agreed about these ’super angels’ who are now investing around $3bn a year in space start-ups – some of which were long-term prospects and potential very risky (eg asteroid mining). While this appetite for risk was beneficial in one sense, she recommended a degree of caution for governments in these new partners – with three out of four space start-ups failing. This, she said, needs to be factored into planning and expectations framed. Not everyone will be a SpaceX.

Venture capital firm Seraphim’s investment portfolio gives some idea of the range of space and remote sensing start-ups it is backing – from Spire (SIGINT, maritime tracking and weather), ICEEYE (under 100kg SAR radar satellite) to an as yet unannounced UK-start-up developing unhackable quantum key satellite communications. Seraphim also sees little division between space and other persistent sensors – such as high altitude pseudo-satellite (HAPS) UAVs.

While the conference was perhaps one of the very first opportunities for industry to hear the MoD’s views on military space in an open forum, there was also a chance to hear from industry on some of the most exciting and advanced technology coming to space – both from well-established aerospace and defence companies like Airbus and Lockheed Martin, to a raft of ‘New Space’ start-ups.

For example, while much attention has focussed recently on reusable rockets, the UK’s Reaction Engines has received a boost for its revolutionary SABRE air-breathing hybrid rocket engine, which promises airline-style space access operations. For the military, a SABRE-powered vehicle might provide a highly capable rapid-response launcher, to quickly put satellites into orbit, or replace ones that have been damaged or destroyed. Importantly, too for military customers it is not restricted to spaceports and might be forward deployed to anywhere with a long-enough runway – making it high flexible. There is also the potential of utilising a SABRE-powered aircraft as a hypersonic, high altitude ISR platform that might be immune to present-day SAMs. With the US, China and Russia all investing in hypersonics, this is a area to watch.

Another disruptive technology on the horizon is in-orbit satellite life extension and maintenance – with the UK-headquartered Effective Space outlining how its ’Space Drone’ probe, set to launch in 2020, will extend the life of aging, but low-on-fuel geostationary satellites by docking with them and using its electric engine to take control and prolong their operational lives by another 15 years .

Yet in-orbit maintenance, refuelling and life extension may just be the beginning of a larger orbital industry, predicts SSTL’s Sir Martin Sweeting. 3D printing and robotics he told the audience, are now opening up what he considers to be the biggest breakthrough in space technology – ‘in-orbit manufacturing’ in the next 10-15 years. Presently satellites have to fit inside an rocket nosecone, survive a highly dynamic launch to orbit, unfold and deploy – adding complexity and limiting the size of antennas or apertures used. In orbit robotic manufacturing, with satellites actually assembled or 3D printed in orbit said would allow massive apertures – to be constructed allowing a massive leap in capability. For those who think that today’s high-resolution imagery from space cannot possibly get any more sharper or detailed, you may be in for a surprise.


Carbonite-2 and beyond

HD video imagery from the Carbonite-2 satellite can be used in a number of new ways. (Space-i)

In some ways, the UK already has already disrupted the space industry, through its focus on small, affordable satellites, with companies led by Surrey Satellites (SSTL) blazing a trail in ever more capable, yet relatively cheap capabilities that can deployed quickly using the very latest technology.

The RAF’s Carbonite-2 video satellite, for example, built by SSTL, was procured, developed and launched in only eight months with the MoD putting £4.5m towards the technology demonstrator via the RAF’s Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) a DARPA-like defence tech office to trial new capabilities in a much faster way.

Carbonite-2, said Earth-‘s Richard Blain is a ‘leapfrog’ capability, with its 50fps colour HD video and rapid revisit time allowing a number of innovative capabilities. ‘Staring’ at one area during a pass means that moving ships, vehicles and aircraft can be tracked, their speed and heading worked out and data presented to the operator. Multiple passes can also mean that cloud cover can be digitally removed, or 3D models of topography or buildings generated. Finally, one of the other benefits for this HD colour video is fusing it with other databases, (for example ship AIS or aircraft ADS-B) to provide graphical overlays of information, giving deep context to the imagery.

Yet as advanced as Carbonite 2 is, it only the start of the MoD’s journey in its own sovereign space imagery capability and there have already been hints that it will be the first of a constellation of UK satellite demonstrators. At the conference SSTL’s Sweeting revealed two potential follow-on satellite concepts – DarkCARB which would use a high resolution (3-4m) thermal IR camera to image the Earth during night-time – a capability currently not commercial available. A further development would be CarbSAR, with cameras replacing by a SAR radar allowing all-weather day and night surveillance.

Added Sweeting: “ ‘The UK will soon have a Space Port and a feasible opportunity to possess an end-to-end sovereign space capability – at an affordable scale.”



Is the Force awakening?

This then is just some of the highlights and flavour of what was a fascinating and informative conference, which covered range of subjects from international partnerships, to space operation centres, to rapid acquisition and new disruptive technology, services and business models.

This conference was well overdue – and there was a sense of some practitioners and proponents being genuinely excited that finally they could talk openly about what while before had not been exactly secret, at least had been downplayed and discussed only by a handful of people. Today, while space is not ‘militarised’ there is in effect a vast, high-speed 3D chess game taking place above our heads, with moves and counter-moves being made, weaknesses probed and opponents studied. As a character in Star Trek VI notes: ‘In space, all warriors are cold warriors’.

Despite British society and its armed forces reliance on space, the UK’s small cadre of ‘starfleet’ officers, both has a task in both educating outsiders and those within the armed forces of what space can do for them. It was mentioned more than once by speakers that for the UK, military space is where cyber was about 10 years previously – an emerging domain in which Britain has a lot to offer, but also a lot to learn.

With the commercial market providing many space services (eg EO) that in previous decades were just the preserve of military of government satellites, the task for the UK MoD (along with other nations) is to work out which bespoke, high-end capabilities they need to develop, fund, control and operate themselves. Just as there is still a need for professional photographers with DSLR and lights to capture a wedding, (despite every guest recording the event from multiple perspectives on a smartphone camera), so there will be a split between ‘core’ defence and commercial/free/open space services. The most innovative and interesting space, may well be in the overlap between the two.

And finally, there is the human angle. ‘No Bucks, no Buck Rogers’ as the late, great Tom Wolfe opined to his Mercury astronauts in The Right Stuff. Yet the UK also needs to inspire, recruit, train, develop its own Buck (or Becky) Rogers to think, build, operate and utilise space assets and capability to win future conflicts in this contested domain. We are moving, said one speaker from ‘space-enabled  warfare’ to ‘enabling space warfare’.

On hundred years ago, the Royal Air Force adopted the motto ‘Per ardua ad astra’ encouraging its new recruits to aim for the stars, despite adversity. In 2018, this is set to take on a new meaning as the RAF and the MoD itself launches on a new trajectory.

Tim Robinson 
25 May 2018