Written Evidence Submitted by AWE
AWE plays a crucial role in nuclear defence, providing the warheads for the UK’s nuclear deterrent. We also use our knowledge and technical expertise to provide innovative solutions that support the UK’s counter-terrorism and nuclear threat reduction activities.
We do not claim to represent defence space through our submission to this inquiry, but a number of our capabilities are of direct relevance to the questions asked and to both defence and civil space – especially with regard to resilience to human-made and natural threats. The shared technologies and vulnerabilities of all spacecraft irrespective of the purpose of their design means that expertise can and ought to be shared between the UK’s civil and defence space sectors.
Recently, space has been seen as a potential future battleground, with both civil and defence assets being vulnerable to either intentional attack, or inadvertent loss due to space debris caused by an unrelated incident. Natural radiation hazards also exist. As the UK becomes ever-more dependent on space capabilities for communication, sensing etc, the military value of being able to hold those UK assets at risk, rises for our adversaries.
The UK has an industrial and manufacturing base for satellite and related technologies which provides a strong foundation on which to build. From AWE’s perspective, we believe there to be capabilities used in the defence space around these technologies that, as of this point, may not be fully utilised in the civil space. Forging stronger links between these areas would share expertise, be mutually beneficial and likely improve the UK’s prospects as a global space nation.
AWE has capabilities which could support satellite builders in civil and defence space. The product AWE builds is launched on a rocket from under the sea and travels at speeds of up to 15,000mph while being heated to thousands of degrees. Further to this, it is exposed to intense pressure as it reaches and passes through the exo-atmosphere, where it is then exposed to the vacuum of space, before returning to a precise location on earth. Many of the ‘insults’ – pressures, g-forces, rapid multi-axis rotation, radiation – we ensure the UK’s warheads are capable of withstanding are the same as those experienced by civilian satellites.
AWE possess know-how, data and experimental facilities to strengthen against and test for the extreme conditions spacecraft make face. Subject to the consent of our parent Department, we are able to support UK civilian space project with resilience to these threats.
One other area of strength is effective peer review in areas of relevance to the space sector due to the depth and breadth of our scientific community. This includes the ability to understand the vulnerability of complex and potentially classified components that are space capable.
A new strategy could both provide long-term investment while also maximising the use of capabilities already present, such as those in defence, for public benefit. From AWE’s experience, having a long-term financial commitment helps greatly to maintain niche technological capabilities and skills of the sort that will be needed as part of a new UK Space Strategy. In addition to its pure monetary effect, a long-term financial commitment also helps to provide the confidence needed to get the buy-in of stakeholders from industry, to academia to SMEs, as well as to recruit and train young people.
In tandem with adequate funding, utilisation of existing capabilities and skills between the defence and civil sectors will help to minimise the chances of paying for the same capability or service twice.
Getting the right mix of skills to deliver an ambitious new UK Space Strategy will not be easy but will be at the core of its success. Space as a sector does have inherent advantages that help in this regard; not least being a fascinating topic and a desirable area in which to work which helps to draw those with STEM skills to it. This is particularly true regarding graduates, where some sub-specialisms in the space industry can have 100’s of graduates applying for a single place. However, retaining these graduates is more of a challenge, with the difference between expectation and reality in the space sector sometimes being significant.
While the subject matter is fascinating, the pace of work can be slower than anticipated. While in no small part this is part of developing complex technologies, we would hope a new UK Space Strategy would be tolerant of risk and failure if it helped lead to new innovations and the retention of skilled graduates and other workers.
The previous point around well mapped-out and long-term funding holds true here and will be central to an effective new strategy and resulting infrastructure. By offering this, any new UK Space Strategy has a much higher chance of maximising success in the areas that are being considered.
Both civil and defence satellites are increasingly vulnerable to a host of hostile actions ranging from cyber and electromagnetic attacks. On top of this, the potential for accidental destruction, such as in the case of Britain’s first satellite, Ariel-1, is very real, even before considering the naturally occurring risk present in space. All of these factors mean that maximising the resilience of UK space and satellite infrastructure may be key to delivering on a new strategy and utilising the capabilities at AWE and other organisations could help to achieve this.