Drone Wars UK’s new briefing, published in collaboration with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), looks at the UK’s emerging military space programme and considers the governance, environmental, and ethical issues involved.
Space based operations affect many aspects of modern life and commerce. The global economy relies heavily on satellites in orbit to provide communication services for a variety of services including mobile phones, the internet, television, and financial trading systems. Global positioning system (GPS) satellites play a key role in transport networks, while earth observation satellites provide information for weather forecasting, climate monitoring, and crop observation.
Space is also, unfortunately, a key domain for military operations. Modern military engagements rely heavily on space-based assets. Space systems are used for command and control globally; surveillance, intelligence and reconnaissance; missile warning; and in support of forces deployed overseas. Satellites also provide secure communications links for military and security forces, including communications needed to fly armed drones remotely. Many precision-guided munitions use information provided by space-based assets to correct their positioning in order to hit a target.
The falling cost of launching small satellites is driving a new ‘race for space’, with many commercial and government actors keen to capitalise on the economic and strategic advantages offered by the exploitation of space. However this is creating conditions for conflict. Satellite orbits are contested and space assets are at risk from a variety of natural and artificial hazards and threats, including potential anti-satellite capabilities. Satellite systems are defenceless and extremely vulnerable and losing an important satellite could have severe consequences. The loss of a key military or dual use satellite (such as one used for early warning of missile attack) – through an accident, impact of debris or a meteorite, technical failure, or a cyber-attack or similar on critical ground-based infrastructure – at a time of international tension could inadvertently lead to a military exchange, with major consequences.
Although the UK’s space programme began in 1952, until recently it has experienced limited success. The UK is a relatively small player in space compared to China, France, Japan, Russia, and the US, all of who have larger and more advanced space programmes. However, as the commercial space sector has expanded and the cost of launches has decreased, the UK government is now treating space as an area of serious interest. In September 2021 the government published a National Space Strategy aimed at developing the space economy and protecting the UK’s interests in space. In February 2022 the Ministry of Defence published its Defence Space Strategy, outlining “how Defence will protect the UK’s national interests in space in an era of ever-growing threats”. The strategy announced a portfolio of programmes for developing space assets and infrastructure, including:
- Upgrading the UK’s Skynet military communications satellites network.
- Developing a network of small satellites for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and, possibly in future, target selection.
- Developing and enhancing command and control of space assets.
- Developing and Space Domain Awareness (SDA) capabilities for detecting, tracking, and identifying objects in orbit.
The UK Space Agency is currently supporting the development of three spaceport sites for rocket launches from the UK. The proposed sites for these spaceports are:
- SaxaVord Spaceport (previously known as Shetland Space Centre) – Unst, Shetland Islands.
- Space Hub Sutherland – Sutherland.
- Spaceport Cornwall – Newquay Airport, Cornwall.
Although launches from the spaceports will be undertaken by commercial companies, many of them are expected to be for military or dual use purposes. Space use has evolved into a fuzzy military/commercial collaboration.
One of the issues fuelling concerns by local residents over spaceport operations is environmental impacts. The launching of rockets is starting to produce environmental problems, polluting the ground with fuel and exhaust fumes. Considerable amounts of carbon dioxide are released from the development and manufacture of rockets and from producing, storing and burning the rocket fuels.
Rocket launches have been assumed to pose a limited threat to the global environment because the space industry has until now been small and unchanging. However, today’s rapid growth and the threat of expanding space tourism and transportation systems, coupled with the lack of research and oversight, is causing concern among scientists, environmentalists and citizen groups. As yet there is little agreement on what constitutes responsible behaviour with regards to humanity’s presence in space, and the field of space ethics is in its infancy. Further work is urgently needed in these fields to set out ‘ground rules’ before the commercial exploitation of space moves ahead without regard to environmental and ethical factors.
Drone Wars UK and CND make the following recommendations to address some of the current gaps in space policy.
- More public discussion and debate is needed about the commercial and military use of space and its benefits and downsides.
- The UK Space Agency and Ministry of Defence should develop codes of good ethical practice for their space operations and associated ground-based developments.
- Further research into the environmental effects of space operations, both short term and long term and on earth and in space, is needed.
- The UK Space Agency should not provide funding or support for projects where high ethical and environmental risks can be foreseen.
- Meaningful environmental impact assessments, including a space impact assessment, should be conducted before the development of spaceports.
- The UK government should continue work internationally to promote responsible behaviour in space, whilst ensuring its own conduct in space is beyond reproach.
An online webinar is planned to discuss these issues with the authors and
others in the next few weeks. Details coming soon.