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Why Is The RAF's Future In Space?

Far from the images of Star Wars that may be conjured up when speaking about tackling “space-based threats”, the reality of defence in space...

Syncom IV Satellite NASA

Cover Image: NASA

The Defence Secretary has announced the launch of the UK's first Defence Space Strategy.

In a statement detailing a boost in the number of personnel working in the defence space sector, he says RAF Air Command would take on responsibility for “command and control” of UK military space operations.

It comes just a month after Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier told Forces News that the future of the RAF was in space.

Star Wars: What are the threats to UK interests in space?

Far from the images of Star Wars that may be conjured up when speaking about tackling “space-based threats”, the reality of defence in space is less lightsabers and Jedis and more satellites and GPS.

Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, says the emerging space threats are "jamming of civilian satellites used for broadcasters and satellite navigation to support military capabilities".

The UK’s focus on space comes at a time when its future in the sector is at risk after the EU blocked its participation in the Galileo project citing security concerns.

The Galileo project is the European version of the US's GPS system - promising real-time positioning down to a metre or less - which first proved a success to military units fighting in the featureless desert in the first Gulf War in 1991.

For defence, GPS is vital for a number of weapon systems.

It allows everything from missiles to be launched accurately to complex military manoeuvres being much easier and even reducing the risk of friendly-fire incidents.

X-45A in flight with F-18 chase aircraft, during first GPS-guided weapon demonstration flight
X-45A in flight with F-18 #846 chase aircraft, during its first GPS-guided weapon demonstration flight (Credit: NASA)

For years the UK’s expertise in the industry has been channelled into the European project with 1.4 billion euros being spent on it, something Business Secretary Greg Clark is reportedly taking legal advice on to find out if the money can be reclaimed.

So the announcement that the UK will explore ways British companies could benefit from an alternative to the EU Galileo programme should not come as a surprise.

Last year the Defense Science Board in the United States warned that electromagnetic threats to satellite communications "have rapidly escalated in the last few years” and likely will continue growing in the future.

General David Goldfein, 21st Chief of Staff of the US Air Force, has been asserting the importance of the defence of space and satellites. He says: “Air and space superiority… are not America’s ordained right.” He says that it should not be taken “for granted.”

“We must plan for it, equip for it, train for it and fight for it.”

“It is time for us as a service, regardless of speciality badge, to embrace space superiority with the same passion and sense of ownership as we apply to air superiority today.”

For the first time since the Cold War ended, the US is adopting a warfighting mindset in its approach to space superiority.

To that end, it operates a Space Battle Management system which operates like air traffic control for space.

Rather than assume the availability of space-based systems that provide military communications, missile launch warnings and navigation information, there is now a focus on securing these technologies in a future where the domain may be contested.

Whether the UK chooses to go it alone and launch its own GPS satellite system or is allowed to join the US programme, it is clear that it must also be willing to commit to defending its assets in space.