UK announces £1.4bn strategy to boost defence presence in space

The UK government has pledged investment of £1.4bn to bolster the number of British satellites in space as part of its first defence space strategy.

Defence secretary Ben Wallace said it was “crucial” that Britain pushes the “frontiers of our defence space ambitions” in a bid to stay “one step ahead of our competitors”.

As part of the public investment, £968m will be committed over the next 10 years to deliver a multi-satellite system – known as the Istari programme – to support greater global surveillance and intelligence for military operations, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced yesterday.

A further £61m will explore cutting-edge laser communications technology to deliver data from space to Earth at a speed equivalent to superfast broadband.

The defence space strategy follows on the back of the UK's national space strategy, which was published in September.

The MoD’s document outlines how it plans to protect the UK’s national interests in space in an era of “ever-growing threats”. Recent years have seen increasing international rows over satellites, space weaponry and collisions in orbit, with friction between the US, China and Russia.

The space strategy will, according to the MoD, stimulate growth across the sector and support highly skilled jobs across the UK, while also allowing Britain to work more closely with its Nato allies, including the US.

The newly announced money is on top of the existing £5bn already being used to upgrade the UK’s Skynet satellite communications capability, providing strategic communication services to the UK armed forces and allies.

Wallace said: “It’s crucial we continue to push the frontiers of our defence space ambitions, enhancing our military resilience and strengthening our nation’s security. This significant investment will help to ensure the UK remains at the forefront of space innovation and one step ahead of our competitors.”

In addition to projects funded by the £1.4bn, a series of supporting programmes funded through existing investment will form part of the strategy, with the intention of providing “cutting-edge” technologies for intelligence, surveillance, situational awareness, and command and control.

These include Minerva, which will see an additional £127m invested over the next four years to develop a network of satellites designed to integrate space with land, air, sea and cyber.

Another satellite project is Prometheus 2. It encompasses two small satellites, each comparable to the size of a shoebox, which are set to provide a test platform for monitoring through GPS, radio signals and sophisticated imaging, paving the way for a “more collaborative and connected space communication system” with combat allies, officials said.

UK Space Command, established in July, will lead the approach to space defence.

Commenting on the announcement, Volodymyr Levykin, CEO and founder of Skyrora, a private space company based in the UK, said: "The commercial space sector in the UK has big aspirations and there remain challenges around how the UK might achieve these objectives in a decade’s time. In particular, greater engagement and investment is needed from the UK government to ensure that sovereign launch capabilities become a reality.

“The UK could benefit from shifting its focus from the direction of space in the US to the potential on its own soil. Partnering on projects such as Prometheus is positive, but surely this isn’t the limit of our ambition.

“In reality, the current investment does not accurately reflect the promise of the UK space industry and where it will be in 2032. There needs to be more clarity on the roadmap for this new strategy. Spacetech companies in the UK need to understand how they can engage with the government on these projects and gain traction. In order for this strategy to be a success, the government simply must look beyond academic institutions to enable commercial entities to succeed and allow the UK’s space industry to flourish."

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