Better late than never: Britain goes to outer space


“We’ve got to have this… I don’t mind for myself, but I don’t want any other Foreign Secretary of this country to be talked at, or to, by the Secretary of State in the United States as I just have with Mr Byrnes. We’ve got to have this thing over here, whatever it costs. We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it.” – Ernest Bevin, 1946[1]

In April 2014, to little fanfare, the British Government released its first ever National Space Security Policy (NSSP). This document is the first official and publicly accessible statement of intent from the British Government on activities in outer space with regard to defence and security planning. What gained more traction on release, and more recently in debates over Scottish separatism, was the ‘Space Growth Action Plan’, and more specifically, the fantastical and glamorous visions of air-launch capabilities for micro-satellites and sub-orbital tourism. Despite some well-earned success stories, Britain as a state is lagging behind much of the rest of Earth’s developed countries in terms of publicly visible state policies and programs for outer space across the military, intelligence, commercial, diplomatic, and scientific sectors.

After decades of ignoring outer space, the British state is beginning, at least officially, to understand the mundane, every day, but lucrative values of outer space activities across the board.[2] Popular consciousness has a long way to go, however. Space tourism is a fashionable zeitgeist that is not representative of where the lion’s share of the money and resources of the global space sector goes. Most of the uses of outer space, in value and volume, are in telecommunications, missile detection and early warning, weather satellites, and navigation systems. These systems have military and civilian applications – what is called dual-use. Our financial systems use satellites to verify time on transactions – large or small. Aircraft use satellite navigation to land precisely in difficult conditions. Without space systems our ‘just-in-time’ economy will grind to a halt before it can revert to the pre-satellite way of doing things. Outer space has become so integral to our modern economy it is startling how little of everyday space activity in orbit is known. Popular images of space still rely on fantastical, but practically irrelevant,[3] nostalgia of the Apollo missions and manned exploration of other worlds. When governments speak of investing in ‘space’, it is often a matter of creating competitive rockets for the global satellite launch market (as in SpaceX or France’s case), or making better satellites and space services (as in Britain’s case), or developing national economic development through having reliable access to data on natural resources (such as in Nigeria’s case) and other economically profitable data.

Military space issues, sometimes referred to under the guise of ‘space security’,[4] reach the headlines from time to time. However, it is usually on the premise of state officials trading accusations that someone is threatening the world with ‘militarising’ space or in researching practically useless space-based weapons.[5] Outer space was a military realm from the start of human activity above the atmosphere. The United States and the Soviet Union pursued rocket and satellite technologies in the 1950s to be able to more effectively rain nuclear fire upon each other and to develop satellites that could locate each other’s key facilities and nuclear forces to provide more accurate targeting data for strategic bombers. Space science missions were dovetailed to the military and propaganda competition between the two superpowers, whilst using idealistic notions of the uses of outer space for ‘peaceful purposes’ as a useful ruse to accuse the other side of being ‘needlessly’ militaristic.[6]

In essence, not much has changed. Declarations and public diplomacy statements made by officials that a particular country is ‘militarising’ space are rhetorical devices designed to mislead a space-uneducated audience to rally support for a state’s own military space policies.[7] Space has always been militarised since humans began using it, and shows no sign of changing course. Earth’s major military powers continue to invest heavily in space systems for military modernisation and spying purposes, or purposes that are inherently dual-use, whilst paying lip-service to using space for peaceful purposes. Space-based weapons take centre stage at stalled propagandistic and turgid discussions on space arms control at the United Nations’ Conference on Disarmament. Ultimately, space-based weapons are a remote possibility and distract attention from existing space warfare methods, as reflected in the NSSP’s refusal to discuss the topic, whilst listing the already existing ways that countries have to wage space warfare on each other without space-based weapons.

Many countries’ policies and activities demonstrate remarkable hypocrisy in their supposed belief that space should be used for ‘peaceful purposes’[8] whilst continuing to invest in necessary militarily-useful space systems.[9] Britain can now be added to that list because of the NSSP[10] – bringing into line with common strategic wisdom that British space dependence necessitates British awareness of how to handle threats to its space sector.

The NSSP is long overdue. The United States, China, Australia, France, and Russia have long published official policy documents or strategic plans for their uses of outer space, be it military or civilian, or both. In itself, the NSSP is unremarkable. However, in its context, the NSSP is a watershed for specialists interested in the UK’s role in outer space activities. UK military publications have appeared irregularly about outer space and the dangers the UK may face on account of unintentional and intentional threats to the space systems it depends upon. But now there is official recognition from the British Government that there are areas where the Britain needs to do more to capitalise on potential profits from the global space economy and to address and minimise the risks to the space systems the British state relies upon.

British space activity has not been non-existent prior to recent policy releases. The British military has used the Skynet communications satellite constellation for a few decades to provide the most essential satellite communications to deployed forces around the globe. However, Britain has to depend on commercial and allied satellite communications services for most other uses – including for its armed forces’ navigations and precision munitions. In the past few years, we have seen a core of official documents and activities come together – such as the consolidation of Government and industry’s links into the UK Space Agency. The UK Military Space Primer, and the latest UK Air and Space Doctrine, to show greater official-level awareness within the military about the uses of outer space. These two more recent documents shows the rest of the Government beginning to realise the role Government can play in pushing the already-vibrant and globally attractive British space sector.

Whilst the British state is a pygmy in space, it has room to grow with its high-tech manufacturing base. Economic space activity in Britain has performed well under what could be seen as benign neglect. Astrium makes satellites in Stevenage for many major European projects – including for the European Space Agency’s Galileo navigation system.  Surrey Satellites is a world leader in small satellite design and manufacturing. London is home to Inmarsat, a major maritime satellite communications provider. Numerous smaller companies manufacture parts and components for the global space industry. University departments develop new satellites and services for testing and possible market releases for a world that demands ever more space-based services and data. ‘Commercial space’ is another fashionable idea – but most demand for space services and data, globally, come from the Government sector. Furthermore, space tourism is expected to remain a marginal aspect of the commercial aspects of space activity.

However, Britain still has to enact a United Nations mechanism for the release of space-based imaging and sensing data in times of national emergency or disaster, like it did in the winter of 2013-2014 to be able to better co-ordinate rescue services and emergency responders, as Britain had no national capability to get such information, while many other states do, including Britain’s European peers. As parts of Britain lay underwater or in tatters from coastal storms and exceptional flooding, the UK government had to either buy essential satellite data or rely on the good will of other states and corporations.

Taxpayers and leaders across the world, not only in Britain, need more information on how space services have modernised the world economy – and India’s usual high praise for the economic development potential of outer space systems is not idle talk. The world’s publics need to go beyond the popular conceptions of space activity as American footsteps on the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The most important and consequential things to happen in human space activity thus far have been when our satellites began to look back down on Earth and provide troves of useful data – for both military and civilian purposes – or when space is used as a medium through which threatened nuclear war may be delivered.

Finally, the UK Government has recognised that the regions and devolved countries can take an active role in outer space. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland can take part in space activities, especially when considering the potentials for economic development with space services. For example, rural police services benefit greatly from space-based data, especially when managing field units with navigation systems and tracking and managing unmanned aerial vehicles. Agriculture, too, has a potential benefit from consistent and timely space-based remote sensing data, which is of obvious value beyond the centre of gravity of London. A high-tech economy, as we know it, needs space systems. Size does not matter as much when it comes to purchasing space-derived data or manufacturing and operating satellites – other countries and companies will launch a satellite for a fee.

Small European countries can target their niche capabilities in space into a collective effort at the European Space Agency, as well as into economic development plans suited for home. A Welsh or Scottish space economy development plan based on creating a locally taxable space sector to provide services and business to agriculture, tourism, hi-tech manufacturing, and resource management[11] is not ungrounded when targeted in conjunction with wider economic plans. However, a spaceport plan based on unproven concepts – either technologically (e.g. the Skylon spaceplane) or economically (e.g. Virgin’s space tourism and air-launched microsatellites) – should be seen as a more risky endeavour. However, more risky endeavours tend to have much larger potential rewards – both economically and politically, in a land threatening secession.

It seems that the British state has realised that there’s more to outer space than planetary exploration and manned flight; that it isn’t an expensive folly for the biggest states on Earth. It wants a space sector “with the bloody Union Jack on it.”[12] Better late than never.

bleddBleddyn E. Bowen is a doctoral candidate at the Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University. His doctoral thesis examines space warfare and strategic thinking about outer space. His general research interests include the politics of outer space, the military uses of outer space, military history, military theory and philosophy, maritime strategy, nuclear weapons, and geopolitics. Twitter: @bleddb


[1] The Foreign Secretary at the time, referring to the atomic bomb in frustration at the American decision to exclude Britain from previously cooperative nuclear weapons research in 1946. Taken from: Peter Hennessy, The Secret State: Preparing for the Worst 1945-2010 (London: Penguin, 2010) pp. 50-51
[2] Meaning military, economic, scientific, and political-
[3] This does not discount the merits of arguments for human exploration of outer space – merely an observation on the highest priorities of governments in space budgets.
[4] On a discussion of the various meanings of ‘space security’ and its consequences, see: Bleddyn E. Bowen, ‘Cascading Crises: Orbital Debris and the Widening of Space Security’, Astropolitics: The International Journal of Space Politics and Policy (12:1, 2014)
[5] The technologies that would make space-based weapons practical are not likely to arrive in the foreseeable future, and are easily circumvented by already-existing weapons based on Earth to achieve the same effects – what the NSSP refers to as ‘counterspace’. This means the targeting of satellites with missiles, lasers, jamming and cyber intrusions that are based on Earth.
[6] See the entirety of: Walter McDougall, …The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997)
[7] A case in point is Xi Jinping’s comments on the rationales behind Chinese military space policy: Ben Blanchard, ‘China’s President Xi urges greater military use of space’. Reuters, 15 April 2014, (accessed 21/04/2014)
[8] Note that, in practice, most countries adhere to the American definition of ‘peaceful purposes’ to mean non-aggressive, allowing military space systems to be deployed.
[9] See: The White House, United States National Space Policy, Washington, D.C., June 28 2010. Available at:; The White House, National Security Strategy, Washington, D.C., May 2010, p. 31. Available at:; United States Department of Defense, ‘National Security Space Strategy: Unclassified Summary’, January 2011, Washington, D.C., p. 1. Available at:  (accessed 21/04/2014); French Government, ‘The French White Paper on defence and national security’, Paris, 2008,  Sections 12, 13, 14. Available at:; French Government, ‘French White Paper: Defence and National Security 2013’, Paris, 2013,  pp. 44, 70, 81, 118. Available at:; Australian Department of Defence, ‘Defence White Paper 2013’, Canberra, 2013, p. 15, 24; Australian Government, ‘Australia’s Satellite Utilisation Policy’, Canberra, 16 April 2013, pp. 12-15, 18-19; Chinese Government, ‘China’s National Defense in 2010’, Beijing, 2010, Chapter X, (accessed 23/4/2014); Chinese Government, ‘China’s National…’ Chapter III, (accessed 23/4/2013); Jana Honkova, ‘The Russian Federation’s Approach To Military Space and Its Military Space Capabilities’, Policy Outlook, November 2013, George C. Marshall Institute, esp. pp. 5-9
[10] HM Government, UKSA/13/1292, ‘National Space Security Policy’, London, April 2014, esp. pp. 5-10
[11] Including wind, tidal, minerals, water.
[12] Devolved economic and science activities encroaching on the UK space sector may cause some symbolic issues with Celtic flags in space.