As satellites become targets, UK military seeks closer ties with space industry

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Gen. Sir Chris Deverell, commander of Joint Forces Command: “Our biggest concern is the behavior of Russia and of China."

LONDON — The United Kingdom is not planning to establish an independent Space Force. It already has an organization within the Ministry of Defence, the Joint Forces Command, that oversees space, intelligence, information systems and cyber operations. But Joint Forces Command is very much aligned with the U.S. Defense Department in its thinking about space as a “warfighting domain” and on where the threats lie.

“Our biggest concern is the behavior of Russia and of China,” Gen. Sir Chris Deverell, commander of Joint Forces Command, said Nov. 6 at the 2018 Global MilSatcom conference.

He slammed both nations for not practicing what they preach on the militarization of space. “They continue to promote international agreements on non-weaponization of space but are developing offensive space capabilities under a screen of propaganda and misinformation,” said Deverell.

Russia and China are developing directed energy weapons, cyber techniques to disrupt satellite services and antisatellite missiles, he added.

He said the MoD is moving to “defend space.”

But exactly how to do that is still very much under debate. A high-level focus on space warfare comes at a time when the U.K. civilian space activity is booming and the government is investing in private ventures — such as satellite manufacturing and spaceports — with hopes of boosting economic growth.

The U.K.  — thanks in large part to Airbus and Surrey Satellite — builds a quarter of the world’s large communications satellites and 40 percent of the world’s small satellites, he said. This has a huge impact on the economy and also creates opportunities for the MoD to apply commercial technologies to space security. Threats to space systems not only are a concern to the military but to the larger economy that relies on satellites for essential services.

“Here we have a sector in which we excel, which is daily growing more central to everyone’s lives, but is vulnerable to attack,” said Deverell.

The convergence of national security and economic interests creates opportunities and also challenges for the space industry in the U.K., he suggested. On many people’s minds in this sector is the still uncertain fallout from Brexit.

Many space research and development projects in the United Kingdom are partnerships with the European Union. The U.K. still doesn’t know how it will play in Europe’s Galileo global satellite navigation system, which is expected to reach full operational capability in 2019 or 2020. The nation may lose access to Galileo’s encrypted Public Regulated Service, and U.K. firms would be cut off from future Galileo contracts. Although the U.K. plans to remain in the European Space Agency, its future in the EU’s Copernicus Earth-observation program is at risk, too. And U.K. participation in Europe’s Space Surveillance and Tracking program is in doubt as well.

“A rich understanding of what’s happening in the world is needed to enable better decision making,” Deverell said. U.K. space activities have to be pursued and made “resilient to challenges, be it jamming, cyber, direct attack, space weather, debris, Brexit or anything else.”

An urgency to defend space has “expanded our thinking,” he said. The U.K. government designated space as critical national infrastructure in 2015 and most recently declared it the fifth warfighting domain along with air, sea, ground and cyber.

The government in 2010 established the U.K. Space Agency to nurture a domestic space industry, and the MoD will be working more closely with the agency to better understand what is happening in the private sector, said Deverell. “Cooperation with the U.K. Space Agency and industry is vital.” Like the DoD, the MoD has been engaged in a protracted debate on how to change the military procurement process so it can more quickly insert cutting-edge technology into defense programs.

Meanwhile, the U.K. military continues to deepen its participation in U.S. military space activities. As the United States’ closest ally, the U.K. for decades has had insider access to the Pentagon’s space war games and technology efforts. During Air Force Space Command’s recently concluded Schriever Wargame 2018 at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, the U.K. was put in charge of the so-called Special Capabilities Integration Cell. This cell is where commanders simulated how the U.S., U.K., Australia and Canada would combine their space capabilities to fend off attacks in a potential conflict.

“In this game, we had the first ever high-level coalition cell,” Air Force Brig. Gen. DeAnna Burt, director of operations and communications at U.S. Air Force Space Command, said last week in Washington. “Partners brought future capabilities they’d like to build at the SAP [special access program] level,” she said. “Britain ran the cell.”

Burt said this was a sign that “we really have arrived as a coalition.”