New briefing: For Heaven’s Sake – Examining the UK’s Militarisation of Space

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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.  Read more

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

Skynet 5: Connecting the Drones

Whilst it is relatively easy to build, launch and fly a drone, controlling them over great distances and then launching missiles and bombs requires a key element that is available to relatively few forces – military satellites.  

The UK has three military hardened Skynet 5 satellites in geostationary orbit 40,000km above the earth’s surface which relay communications between  headquarters in the UK and British forces deployed on operations overseas.  A fourth Skynet 5 satellite will be launched in 2013.  

The satellites enable  RAF pilots sitting in their base in the Nevada desert to fly Reaper drones and launch their missiles over Afghanistan.  Via Skynet 5’s high-bandwidth connection, information and video from the Reapers over Afghanistan is beamed to Creech USAF base in Nevada and to the UK. 

Skynet 5 however is not owned by the Ministry of Defence, but by a private company called Paradigm Secure Communication.  In 2003 the Ministry of Defence signed a £3.6bn deal with Paradigm Secure Communication for provision of all worldwide satellite communications services to UK Armed Forces up to 2018 (later amended to 2020 and then this year extended to 2022).  This Private Finance Initiative (PFI), one of the most expensive ever signed by the MoD, is paid for in part by selling spare bandwidth to other military forces.

1. Skynet 5 enables satellite communications for UK forces
2. The largely autonomous satellites talk to two UK ground stations
3. Skynet 5 supports high-bandwidth applications, such as UAV video
4. Antennas and terminals are being upgraded to make best use of Skynet
5. New battlefield networks, such as Cormorant, feed into the system
6. System gives commanders access to more information, faster


Paradigm Secure Communications is a wholly owned subsidiary of EADS (the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company), one of the world largest military companies.  Within the company structure, Paradigm is part of Astrium Services, which delivers space-based services to military and government users. Astrium Services owns 75% of Milsat Services which also provides military satellite communication services to both the German armed forces and the French Navy.

While British Reaper drones are flying over Afghanistan and controlled by pilots in the Nevada desert, the Skynet system is operated out of several locations in the UK.   The system has two satellite ground stations, one in Hampshire (Oakhanger) and one in Wiltshire (Colerne).  However Paradigm operates the Skynet 5 satellites from a dedicated centre in Hawthorn, Wiltshire, very close to the MoD’s Defence Communications and Services Agency (DCSA) Global Operations and Security Control Centre at Corsham.