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The UK Defence Space Strategy

The UK’s first Defence Space Strategy outlines how it intends to utilise space and upgrade its capabilities in the domain over the next 10 years. While the document is not a testament of cutting-edge innovation and lacks specificity, it lays the groundwork for a developing space power.

Courtesy of Royal Air Force / OGL v3.0

After the publication of the National Space Strategy (NSS) in September 2021, the Defence Space Strategy (DSS) was eagerly awaited and finally saw the light of day on 1 February 2022. With details thin on the ground in the former document, there were high hopes that the DSS, in supplementing the overarching document, would provide specificity. Those who had hoped for a detailed breakdown of capabilities and developments will be disappointed. The DSS follows in the footsteps of the NSS in that it provides a broad roadmap for the UK and its space ambitions, but does not provide tangible milestones. Instead, specificity is reserved for budgetary matters. The DSS outlines how the previously promised £1.4 billion will be spent:

  • Under the area of Satellite Communications (SATCOM), Skynet 6 has separately been promised £5 billion over the next 10 years, with the general capability receiving further funding of nearly £60 million.
  • £970 million for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR).
  • £145 million for Space Control.
  • £135 million for Space Command and Control.
  • £85 million for Space Domain Awareness (SDA).

All sums mentioned above are to be spent over a timeline of 10 years. Given the significant costs of the technologies, these do not represent ground-breaking sums of funding for the sector. For comparison’s sake, the budget proposal of the US Space Force was $17.4 billion for the Financial Year 2022, and France’s military is set to spend €646 million on the space domain in 2022. While the UK cannot, and should not, compare itself to the US on a financial level, the contrasting figures allow for some magnitude of scale.

The budget and the larger document allow for an assessment of UK space priorities: SATCOM is the biggest project by far, with Skynet 6 at its centre. This priority is by no means surprising – increasing bandwidth is critical as part of the integration into other domains, with new ISR capabilities transmitting large amounts of data being just one example. SDA is named as a second priority and is an essential component for any space power, allowing for a greater understanding of threats and the domain itself. ISR, as the third priority and leading the field after Skynet 6 in terms of investment, has been termed as an inherently dual-use capability, which can provide benefits for both defence and civil uses. The strategy promises ‘a series of on-orbit and ground-based demonstrators over the next four years’ to build the basis for an ISR constellation.

Further detail was provided during the launch event by Minister for Defence Procurement Jeremy Quin, who spoke of the Istari programme, a Low Earth Orbit constellation of satellites providing surveillance and intelligence for the military with a price tag of £968 million. An additional £61 million will be put aside for laser communications technology, with the ambition of delivering data from orbit at superfast broadband speed.

As a small space power new to the domain, setting priorities for which capabilities need to be owned and which can be accessed through partners is a fundamental first step

A complementary programme that will underpin Istari is MINERVA, which will see a network of satellites that are able to gather, process and share data in support of operations with other allied satellites.

Better Late Than Never?

What must be kept in mind is the starting position of the UK in the realm of space. Its funding lags behind that of its European neighbours, such as France and Italy. While space has been utilised in military operations for decades (think satellite communications during the war in Afghanistan), the domain was only mentioned for the first time substantially in the Integrated Review in 2021. Given its relatively recent experience and spending focus, an overarching document outlining how the Ministry of Defence aims to operate in the domain is helpful and necessary. It allows the ministry to set priorities and goalposts for where it wants to be in the coming years – including which capabilities to invest in and which technologies to develop.

A crucial part of this is asset procurement and development. As a small space power new to the domain, setting priorities for which capabilities need to be owned and which can be accessed through partners is a fundamental first step. The ‘own, collaborate and access’ framework mentioned in the strategy does just that. This distinction is necessary as it avoids duplication of efforts, while also allowing the UK to offer niche capabilities to its allies in exchange for access to theirs. The partners most mentioned in the strategy are the US, NATO and the Five Eyes allies. To aid future partnerships, an additional programme that has been announced is PROMETHEUS 2, which will allow for greater collaboration with allies. This in-built collaboration, factored in from the early stages of development, is wise and proves forward-thinking. The two tiny satellites that form PROMETHEUS 2 will be a test platform for monitoring through GPS, radio signals and imaging.

The Ambitions

The three strategic themes fall under the broad tenets of ‘protect and defend’, ‘enhance military operations’ and ‘upskill and cohere’.

Protect and defend

At the heart of this first theme lies the aim for credible deterrence and response in and through space. In part, this acknowledges the existence of space as an operational domain and, simultaneously, as a potential vulnerability. The strategy nods towards the NATO statement in 2021 that any attack to, from or within space could lead to the invocation of Article 5 – the Alliance’s mutual-defence provision. A big part of the protect and defend point is the upgrading of Space Domain Awareness (SDA) capabilities, which will help with the detection and attribution of potential threats.

Given the amount of catching up the UK has to do when compared with its allies, it is clear that the UK will not become an innovative leader in this domain in the next few years

Enhance military operations

While space has been named as an operational domain next to land, air, sea and cyber, it also acts as an enabler to other domains. In that role, space has been termed as a ‘force multiplier’ in the US military context – which highlights why integration with the other services is crucial to maximise its benefits. Examples of where space has already fed into the other forces include Position, Navigation and Timing (PNT) capabilities and missile defence. Space is seen as a crucial factor in achieving Multi-Domain Integration (MDI), as outlined in the Integrated Operating Concept 2025 vision. New developments planned by the Ministry of Defence see a focus on novel sensors and ISR satellites, including Synthetic Aperture Radar constellations.

Upskill and cohere

The final strategic theme aims to ensure that the UK workforce and relevant policy documents are coherent to support these efforts, as well as to recruit and train a workforce that can meet future challenges. As part of this, the strategy outlines the role of Space Command, established in April 2021, as the leader of integration and the deliverer of UK Space Command and Control. As such, it sits under the Ministry of Defence Space Directorate, while also taking guidance from the National Space Council, and is chaired by the prime minister. While the strategy states that it intends to build the knowledge required across Defence, in part by partnering with industry, details of how this will happen are kept vague, mentioning ‘looking at opportunities for combined military and civil training’.

What Next?

The strategy was meant to show that the UK is serious about space, as Natalie Moore, Head of Space Policy at the Space Directorate, pointed out during the launch event. However, given the amount of catching up the UK has to do when compared with its allies, it is clear that the UK will not become an innovative leader in this domain in the next few years. This is partly a question of funding. The UK cannot and should not aspire to US levels of funding in this domain. Instead, it comes down to where the UK can make important contributions and slot itself in next to its NATO and Five Eyes allies. Despite decreasing launch costs and technological advancements, space remains an expensive and complicated business. A small space power like the UK should therefore focus on prioritising its capabilities where it can add value. The strategy has outlined how the UK intends to do this; however, the lack of specific details may leave something to be desired for allies and industry. This is in part due to the lack of milestones and the undefined timelines. How the UK now puts its plans into action will be a defining factor.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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