The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the critical importance of space infrastructure like never before. Satellites provide critical services over voice, data, and broadcast communications, as well as navigation, earth observation, and other critical services to government, business, and consumers around the world. They connect colleagues and clients and enable distant communities to keep in touch with their doctors, teachers, friends and families. And it is crucial that they join our armed forces, which have once again worked to overcome the crisis.
The extent to which we rely on satellites for our daily lives cannot be emphasized enough. However, as the dependence on space grows, the dominance of the sector and the protection of the UK’s assets in space become equally vital.
Unfortunately, the need to protect assets is growing day by day. There are well-known examples of seemingly innocent space missions that can interfere and eavesdrop and pose a threat to our national security.
To remedy this, the British government’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office launched an initiative in August for a United States resolution to approve norms of behavior in space. As the only initiative of its kind, it tries to clarify what constitutes responsible behavior on the ground and to minimize the risk of accidents and misunderstandings between nations.
In addition, a spectrum of solutions is available to protect a nation’s state assets from deliberate attacks. These include bodyguard satellites, Whipple shields, satellites capable of monitoring what’s going on around them, raising awareness of space travel, hardening against a range of attacks, surveillance in orbit, and creating a disaggregated architecture with multiple Satellites in different orbits for greater resilience.
A mix of these, coordinated and harmonized with our most trusted allies, makes sense. While these solutions are effective, innovation in this area is paramount.
The UK has an impressive track record in the sector to date, but action is needed to maintain that lead. We are currently the world leader in commercial satellite functions and we are falling behind in addressing the emerging threats. The United States, Russia and China own the majority of the 2,200 operational satellites in orbit, with Germany and Canada also investing significantly more.
There is an urgent need to accelerate the development of a sovereign global navigation satellite system and invest in national earth observation capabilities to support military operations and climate change monitoring. In addition to these programs, we need to figure out how best to defend them as a skill now and in the future.
Some of the protection solutions wouldn’t seem out of place in a science fiction movie, but this is the level of creative thinking we need, with closer collaboration between the government, UK universities, and civil and defense companies. Not only does this create economies of scale and facilitate the necessary investments, it also brings the much needed innovation and expertise to ensure that the UK’s space sector reaches its potential.
With the right investment, the UK space sector could play a key role in coronavirus recovery and help the country compete on an equal footing after Brexit, but time is of the essence. Important decisions about national space capability and security need to be made to prevent the current decline and protect our assets in contested space.
Richard Franklin is the head of Airbus Defense and Space in the UK.