U.K. announces $2 billion in new funding for military space programs

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The new space strategy emphasizes the role of the U.K.’s private space industry in developing capabilities for the military and fueling economic growth

WASHINGTON — The United Kingdom released a new military space strategy Feb. 1 and announced plans to invest $1.9 billion in low Earth orbit satellites and other technologies over the next decade.

“This significant investment will help to ensure the U.K. remains at the forefront of space innovation and one step ahead of our competitors,” Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said. 

The new space strategy calls attention to the threats of anti-satellite weapons and emphasizes the role of the U.K.’s private space industry in developing capabilities for the military and fueling economic growth. 

Speaking on Tuesday at an event in London, Minister for Defense Procurement Jeremy Quin said most of the new funding is for a global constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit that will provide surveillance and intelligence for military operations. The program, called Istari, also will fund advanced laser communications technology for high-speed delivery of data from space to Earth.

In a related project called Minerva, the U.K. Space Command will experiment with a network of satellites that can autonomously collect, process and disseminate data from U.K. and allied satellites to support military operations, Quin said. 

“Istari and Minerva will be the building blocks” of a future military space architecture, said Quin. 

“We are starting with a small number of satellites, we’ll be looking to bring together packs of satellites that can work together, and learn how you control a formation of satellites,” he said. U.K. military labs will launch small satellite experiments to test new designs and concepts such as software-defined spacecraft.

 Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston said the strategy reflects the reality that there are “nefarious, reckless activities” being conducted in space and the U.K. wants to be at the forefront of ensuring space is available for everyone’s use. “This is not about weaponizing space, it’s protecting our interests,” he said. 

 Air Vice-Marshal Harv Smyth, director of space at the Ministry of Defense, said the release of the strategy “unlocks our ability to talk to our partners and sets our priorities.” 

The MoD spent months analyzing the “threat picture,” said Smyth. “We’re planning for the worst and hoping for the best.” One of the takeaways from the studies is that “we need to deepen our ability to conduct space domain analysis, and understand what’s there, what’s it doing and, more importantly, what’s the intent?”

Natalie Moore, the MoD’s head of space policy, said the new strategy “sends a clear signal internationally” about the U.K.’s role and commitment to security. She noted that the strategy “exploits synergies between civil and military space.”

Air Vice-Marshal Paul Godfrey, commander of the U.K. Space Command, said the command will host an industry day March 30 to discuss opportunities to collaborate with the private sector. 

One of the topics of interest to space leaders is responsive launch, a concept that the U.S. Space Force is experimenting with. “We were in the U.S. last week talking about responsive launch,” said Godfrey. 

Virgin Orbit, which plans to launch space missions from the U.K., has pitched responsive launch services to the U.S. Space Force and to the U.K. MoD.