No Space for Peace in the Integrated Security Review

The UK government sees space technology as being of fundamental importance to global power projection.

In March, the UK government published their ‘Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’, titled ‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age’ it describes the government vision for the UK’s role in the world over the next decade.

There has been a lot of discussions on various parts of the review – especially the increases in the UK nuclear arsenal and military spending – but not so much about the parts that deal with the UK military space policy.  This is also an important part of the Review that needs closer examination.

Boris Johnson makes an interesting comment in the Forward:

“…we will continue to defend the integrity of our nation against state threats, whether in the form of illicit finance or coercive economic measures, disinformation, cyber-attacks, electoral interference or even … the use of chemical or other weapons of mass destruction.

The emphasis in the above has been added to highlight parts relating to what has become known as ‘hybrid warfare’, operations carried out in a ‘grey zone’ between war and peace, which uses political warfare, conventional warfare, cyberwarfare and other subversive influencing methods. This form of covert warfare is now a common component of security strategies.

An Integrated Strategy Serving Military and Commercial Interests

The Review stresses the perceived need to develop “a dynamic space programme” to be underwritten by “the credibility of our deterrent and our ability to project power.” This is to be partially achieved by the development of “an integrated space strategy which brings together military and civil space policy.

UKSpace, the trade association of the British space industry, and the RAF have established a Commercial Integration Cell (CIC) at the MoD’s Space Operations Centre (SpOC) in High Wycombe to work on programmes that jointly serve commercial and military interests.

This civil/military collaboration has already begun – in 2008 the government awarded Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) over £4 million to develop Carbonite 2, a small, low-orbit satellite launched in 2018 to provide high-resolution reconnaissance for intelligence gathering for the MoD. This evolved into Artemis, a project led by the RAF with Airbus, its subsidiary SSTL, Raytheon, the US government and Virgin Orbit as partners. In addition, in 2019 the MoD announced a £30 million military space programme for the development of small satellites and US aerospace giant Lockheed-Martin received £23.5 million to help develop spaceports in the UK. Other defence contractors, such as Raytheon and BAE Systems, are also wanting to become more involvedRead more

The Overseas Operations Act, drone strikes, and the presumption of lawfulness

The Overseas Operations Act, which recently became law, aims to limit the exposure of members of the armed forces to prosecution for crimes committed in the course of armed conflict. Unsurprisingly its passage through Parliament was fraught with controversy. In addition, the Parliamentary debate surrounding the Act highlighted that government thinking around the use of armed drones continues to rely on problematic presumptions and tropes. In its response to questions raised in Parliament, the government has betrayed its underlying view that drone warfare is inherently lawful and clean.

With the aim of limiting ‘vexatious claims and prosecution of historical events’ that emerge from the ‘uniquely complex environment of armed conflict overseas’, the Act is divided into two substantive parts. Part 1 creates a new framework of hurdles to be overcome before members of the armed forces can be prosecuted for crimes committed more than five years ago during overseas operations. These prosecutions will now only go ahead in ‘exceptional cases’. Part 2 reduces the time period within which civil and human rights claims can be brought against the Ministry of Defence or armed forces. Additionally, the Act seeks to place a duty on the government to consider derogating from (i.e. suspend) aspects of the European Convention on Human Rights in relation to ‘significant’ overseas operations. Unsurprisingly, the Act has been subject to a great deal of criticism. It has been described as a ‘significant barrier to justice’, contrary to the rule of law, and likely to hamper the training of soldiers.

Beyond this, the passage of the Act has incidentally allowed insight into the government’s thinking around the use of drones, and lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS). In a House of Lords debate on 11 March 2021 Lord Browne of Ladyton tabled an amendment which would have required the government to produce a report into the increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI) for military purposes. Lord Browne’s reason for tabling this amendment was his belief that the Act is based on incorrect perceptions of the future of war, focusing on traditional ‘boots on the ground’ operations, and ignoring the increasing use of remote and autonomous technology.  Read more

2018: British armed drone operations reach a crossroads

In December 2017 the RAF announced that British Reaper drones had reached the significant milestone of flying 100,000 hours of combat operations. First deployed in Afghanistan in 2007 and, on operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria since 2014, the UK’s Reapers have been continuously engaged in surveillance and strike operations for a decade. However, with the collapse of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, ten years of continuous drone operations should be coming to an end. But statements by British government ministers as well as senior military officers indicate that the UK wants its Reapers to continue to fly, seemingly indefinitely. Read more

Perpetual war: UK’s armed drones to stay deployed beyond campaign against ISIS

A Ministry of Defence press conference has revealed that as the war against ISIS ends, British Reaper drones are to stay deployed in the Middle East after other UK aircraft return home .  As The Times reported

‘Air Commodore Johnny Stringer, who led the British air campaign against the terrorist group until last month, said that drones and other surveillance aircraft would continue to fly over Iraq and Syria to help local forces guard against the militants returning.,

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New MoD document on use of drones, same old spin

After a long delay the UK MoD has produced its new doctrine publication on the use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (commonly known as drones).  Its predecessor, ‘The UK Approach to Unmanned Aircraft Systems’ (JDN 2/11),  caused a stir in 2011 as it acknowledged real ethical and legal issues with the growing use of these systems. The subsequent press coverage so horrified the MoD that they removed the publication from their website only restoring it six months later when things had calmed down.  Perhaps that is why the new document is so bland.

In November 2015, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) revealed it was to produce a new version of the document to be published in July 2016.  When it hadn’t appeared a year later, Ministers told MPs that it had been delayed as there was an ongoing review into unmanned systems and autonomy which the document needed to take into account.  Defence Minister Mike Penny promised MPs that it would be published in early 2017.  Nine months later, we now have the document Read more

Cameron testing the water on British drone strikes in Syria

David Cameron with RAF pilots at Al Minhad Air Base in UAE (credit Stefan Rousseau/PA)
David Cameron with RAF pilots at Al Minhad Air Base in UAE, 2012 (credit Stefan Rousseau/PA)

With the faltering of the US air war against ISIS in Iraq, the UK and the US are considering ways to increase their military activity against the group in Syria.  “We need to crush ISIL in Iraq and Syria” said Prime Minister David Cameron in the House of Commons this week in a response to the massacre of Western holidaymakers in Tunisia.

This phrase was interpreted by many in the media (possibly after government spin doctor briefings) to mean possible UK air and drone strikes in Syria. Read more