Spire Global Project (UK Space Agency).

What's the UK military's involvement in space?

Spire Global Project (UK Space Agency).

With conversations about how future wars may be fought there, space is a topic of increasing importance to the British military.

The subject has been high on the agenda, in the last year especially, with discussions also about the way it impacts national security and influences day-to-day communications.

Speaking late last year, the head of the Royal Air Force described the domain as "fundamental" to the UK's national security and interests.

Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Sir Mike Wigston said: "Any loss or disruption to our satellite services would have a disastrous effect on people's day-to-day lives."

At the start of 2021, giving a series of 'predictions' for the year 2040, ACM Wigston also stated the RAF must "seize this moment and be radically forward-looking, accelerating our vision for an Air and Space Force of the future".

Meanwhile, the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme in August 2020: "We have all grown up with the traditional domains of Army, Navy, Air Force.

"The future is going to be about space, cyber, maritime, land and air." 

A month earlier, US Space Force Chief General John W. "Jay" Raymond said "it is clear" that space is now "a warfighting domain", warning that Russia and China are two of the biggest threats.

The UK has since officially formed its Space Command.

WATCH: What does the increased defence budget mean for Britain's space race?

So what is the UK Armed Forces doing in space?


The British military monitors space in numerous ways.

Firstly, it ensures potential adversaries are closely watched.

In July last year, the UK accused Russia of launching a "projectile with the characteristics of a weapon" during a satellite test.

The US also condemned the action, while Russia denied any wrongdoing. 

There is also monitoring in the form of preventing accidents or loss of assets.

Personnel at RAF Fylingdales in North Yorkshire track thousands of objects in space.

The station's primary function is to provide a continuous ballistic missile early warning service to the UK and US.

Its team can also identify objects that are on a collision path with important infrastructure, including the International Space Station (ISS).

Corporal Sonia Campbell, from RAF Fylingdales, told Forces News in 2019: "While you are sleeping in your bed, we're watching space making sure that everything is safe."

General Sir Patrick Sanders, Commander of UK Strategic Command, said in November 2020 that operating in space is vital for watching enemies.

"ISRs [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] from space provides the ultimate high ground – it allows us not to see just over the hill but gets a satellite eye view of our targets and areas of interest," he said.

"[It gives] a live insight into the urban canyon – whilst maintaining a protected distance from the fight."

WATCH: Inside RAF Fylingdales.

Investing in assets

HERMES, a new relocatable ground station at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratories (Dstl), takes the UK to the next level of space capability.

It is the Ministry of Defence's (MOD) most significant investment in space infrastructure in the last two decades.

The ground station ​communicates with satellites passing overhead and can offer an accurate picture for detailed military planning or operations.

UK Space Command officially formed in April this year and is staffed by tri-service personnel alongside Civil Service members and key commercial sector figures.

It brings together three functions under a single 2-star military commander: space operations, space workforce training and growth and space capability - developing and delivering space equipment programmes.

When fully operational, UK Space Command will provide command and control of all of defence's space capabilities.

When announcing plans for the joint command last November, Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke of launching British satellites and the UK's first rocket from Scotland in 2022.

A dedicated space specialist will also soon work on board aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, advising the Royal Navy on satellite communications. 

In July 2019, then-Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt announced £30m to fast-track the launch of a "small satellite demonstrator", which would see the UK play a "leading role" in space.

WATCH: Exclusive: A look at the MOD's new ground station.

It was announced that the demonstrator, also known as Programme Artemis, would be delivered by a new transatlantic team of UK and US defence personnel and firms including Virgin Orbit.

The MOD said the small, low-orbiting satellite could eventually lead to high-resolution video being streamed into the cockpit of a fighter jet.

It followed the announcement by Ms Mordaunt's predecessor Gavin Williamson of the launch of the UK's first Defence Space Strategy.

Mr Williamson said he would boost the number of personnel working in the sector by a fifth over five years to more than 600.

Cooperating with partners

UK cooperation with military and civilian partners extends to the space domain.

Britain became the first partner to join Operation Olympic Defender – a US-led international coalition – that aims to strengthen deterrence against hostile actors in space and at preserving the safety of spaceflight.

The UK's increased focus on space, however, comes as Brexit clouds its future in the sector.

Britain was shut out of the Galileo project by the European Union (EU) over security concerns, despite the UK having already invested in it.

The Galileo project is the European version of the US' GPS system, promising real-time positioning down to a metre or less.

The UK does have its own satellite communication system, Skynet, which is used by the military.

British personnel have contributed their skills and expertise to space projects and programmes around the globe.

RAF pilot Flight Lieutenant Mathew "Stanny" Stannard was selected to join Virgin Orbit's small satellite launch programme on secondment.

He was chosen to join a fleet of pilots testing Boeing 747-400 airplanes from which cutting-edge satellites will launch.

WATCH: Explained: What are the main threats in space warfare?

Meanwhile, one RAF corporal said he is living his dream after being selected to work the US Space Command.

Corporal Mitchell Astbury became one of two RAF personnel to have been assigned to 18th Space Control Squadron (SPCS) at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in summer 2020.

Looking ahead to what the future might have in store, Air Chief Marshal Wigston said space will be the battlefield to watch, adding: "We can no longer assume the unchallenged access to air or space that we have enjoyed for the last three decades.

"The threats from hostile state actors are increasingly more sophisticated, with new combat aircraft, missiles, and stealth technology, which challenge our superiority."

Cover image: UK Space Agency.

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