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Defence’s lack of progress in space domain “unacceptable” and UK “lagging behind Italy”

19 October 2022

Today, the Defence Committee publishes its report “Defence Space: through adversity to the stars?”

The report finds that, while space is of increasing importance to defence, this reliance comes with risk. Space systems are under threat of deliberate attack from our adversaries and accidental damage from collisions in an ever-more contested and congested space environment.

The Committee calls for a Minister for Space to be appointed within the Cabinet Office to provide clear centralised direction and accountability in taking forward the UK’s civil and defence ambitions in space.

Through this inquiry, the Committee found that cross-Whitehall governance on space lacks coherence, clarity and direction. In particular, the Committee finds that it is simply unacceptable that almost four years since the UK was excluded from the EU’s Galileo programme, and with tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money spent on considering a replacement, the Government appears no closer to coming to any conclusions about development of the UK’s own space-based Position, Navigation and Timing (PNT) capabilities.

Given the vital need for a resilient PNT network both for Defence and for other aspects of Critical National Infrastructure, the Committee is deeply concerned by the complacent attitude towards PNT within Government, and by the seemingly low priority which the Ministry of Defence (MOD) attaches to this work.

The Committee calls on the Government to publish the conclusions of its Space Based PNT Programme which seems to have disappeared without a trace, and to set out a clear timetable for producing and taking forward the UK's PNT strategy in its response to this report.

The report also voices concern about Russia’s impounding of OneWeb satellites earlier this year and calls for the Government to conduct the strictest possible scrutiny of the planned merger of OneWeb and Eutelsat under the National Security and Investment Act.

The Committee is surprised and concerned that the Government has removed the National Space Council from the list of Cabinet Committees, and that the MOD’s Space Directorate looks set to be disbanded. The report calls on the Government to provide an explanation for these changes.

Chair's comment

Chair of the Defence Committee, Tobias Ellwood MP, said:

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has thrown the importance of space as a defence domain into sharp relief. In Ukraine, military satellites have been relied on to provide secure communications, intelligence, and weapons targeting. And, for the first time, we have also seen commercial systems, such as Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites, being used to support operations on the ground.

“However, with this reliance comes risk, and in today’s contested and congested space environment our systems are increasingly vulnerable to both deliberate attack and accidental damage.

“Only recently we saw Russia undertake a dangerous and irresponsible anti-satellite missile test which put the International Space Station at risk. Russia’s impounding of OneWeb satellites, and the potential merger of OneWeb and Eutelsat, have raised serious questions about the handing over of critical technology to foreign powers and the need for sovereignty.

“A core defence domain in its own right, space plays a supporting yet central role in the delivery of military Services across the land, air and sea. In the years to come, shoring up our space capabilities will prove vital to the defence and security of the nation.

“Over this inquiry we heard that the UK is, at best, a third-rank space power, lagging behind Italy. And while Government has recognised there is work to do, the Whitehall machine is not moving fast enough.

“When the UK was expelled from the Galileo programme there were no real winners. Now, several years and tens of millions of pounds later, we are no closer to the development of a replacement Position, Navigation and Timing (PNT) network. Instead, the Government’s new Space Based PNT Programme has disappeared into the ether and we risk falling further behind both our peers and our adversaries.

“The lack of progress is unacceptable. In today’s report we call for the creation of a Minister for Space to provide direction, drive and accountability for this and other critical space programmes.

“Over the next decade the Ministry of Defence will spend £1.4 billion on developing new space capabilities. Given the Department’s woeful track record in delivering major projects on time and to budget, we have serious concerns that history will be repeated and we will continue to hold the Department to account.

“Despite the enormity of the task ahead, we must not let the challenges eclipse the potential opportunities. Space offers an exciting opportunity to future-proof both our defence capabilities and our economy. As our workforce shifts to become highly-skilled and technology-focused, the Government and the Ministry of Defence must work to develop clear and attractive space career paths, both in industry and in Defence, that will give us the edge that we need.”

Further information

Image: MoD