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MOD Plans For Space PLUS Brilliant Airbus Skynet By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.




Who controls low-Earth orbit controls near-earth space. Who controls near Earth space dominates Terra. Who dominates Terra dominates the destiny of humankind.  (Everett Carl Dolman – Astropolitik: Classical Geopolitics in the Space Age.

Under the headline “space is now a warfighting domain’” the Daily Telegraphs was one of several newspapers earlier this week reporting on a speech given by the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston at RAF Waddington in which he warned that the UK must be prepared to defend its space craft from anti-satellite weapons that could attacked by hostile states. “Space is now a contested warfighting domain’ the Chief of the Air Staff said and that it would be easy to be complacent and take for granted “our undisturbed reliance on space” in recent campaigns” warning that competing powers such as China and Russia are becoming more assertive”. 

Developments in the ability to jam satellite ground station uplinks, laser weapons and projectile satellites that have all of the characteristics of a weapon are understood to be of particular concern to Western powers in recent years. “We can no longer assume” ACM Wigston said that “the unchallenged access to air or space that we have enjoyed for the last three decades, nor can we ignore the threat of air, ballistic and cruise missile attack at home, across Nato or overseas.” 

That the MOD is embracing the need to invest in space technology in order to ensure that through the Royal Air Force which currently has effective control of the UK’s military space sector involvement along with Strategic Command (formally Joint Forces Command) which I suspect will also have a major influence in UK military space developments, in respect of senior personnel involvement it was very pleasing to see Air Vice Marshal Harvey Smyth take up his position of the UK’s first space commander earlier this year in order to direct overall UK military space effort.

That the UK will soon have a formal and hopefully fully funded strategy for space defence meaning that all those engaged in space telecommunications will eventually be able to have peace of mind that UK assets in space can and will be properly protected is very welcome. But by the very nature of the role that the military will have in space we need to be aware that whatever emerges will be within the ‘Whole Force’ concept, we can expect the emerging strategy to feature large in the upcoming Integrated Foreign Policy, Security and Defence Review process.

Sad to say that the UK is late into the game of considering space-based anti-satellite weapons technology although it was warned as long ago as 2009, two years after China destroyed a weather satellite using ground base launched missile back in 2007. I recall and excellent paper published in the Summer edition of the RAF Air Power Review by Major Stephen Jones (USAF) back in 2009 and which he started his piece by saying:

“The UK will not remain a ‘First Division’ player in military operations if it does not retain access to military space-based capability. The maritime, land, and air-based components of the UK military are heavily reliant on space-based assets, and this dependence is only expected to increase in the future. The benefits of space are not just limited to the military; they have grown to involve nearly every aspect of the nation’s society and are assessed to be a crucial, irreversible component of national security. Due to the prohibitively high costs associated with military space-based capabilities – combined with the fact that the UK enjoys unique access to the products of US space assets, the UK has been reluctant to get significantly involved in space and lags behind spacefaring nations of similar size. By continuing to rely on the US to provide for the vast majority of its military space-based capability, however, the UK may be making long-term sacrifices that could ultimately undermine the country’s ability to act as a force for good in strengthening international peace and security – let alone provide for its own security needs. Alternatives to continued US dependency must be considered if the UK is to remain resilient to future threats and an ally of choice of the US”.

I should add here as a separate remark that the UK Space Agency is investing and taking a very interesting new approach to another very big problem that all countries operating satellites have – the need to track redundant hardware and junk – an estimated 900,000 objects larger than 1cm believed to be floating around in space  – and that as a consequence have the potential through collision to damage or destroy operational satellites. I will come back to that another day.

Back in May 2018 when the then Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson and then Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sor Stephen Hillier announced that the UK would soon be launching its first military space strategy he told the audience at the Air Power conference that the UK has ambitious plans that would ensure the nation was “primed and ready to deter and counter the intensifying threats to our everyday life that are emerging in space”. While much has been going on beneath the surface no formal UK space strategy has yet been launched.

Various reasons have been put forward for the delay in launching the official strategy but what has at least been approved and actioned is the creation of a new ‘Space Command, the setting up of a Cabinet-level national space council and confirmation of the award of a new Skynet 6 communications satellites to Airbus (see further down) together with planned new ballistic missile defence radar systems. Apart from the formal space strategy we still do not know whether the government intends to go ahead and fund full development of a proposed UK Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) and European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service (EGNOS) the Copernicus Earth Observation space programme and the EU Space Surveillance and Tracking (EUSST) programme, all of which we will have to leave if the UK leaves the EU without a deal. There is no real good news in any of this save that UK membership of the European Space Agency (ESA) is not affected by our leaving the EU as this body is not an EU controlled or funded organisation.

Protecting UK assets in space, ensuring that UK military air, land and maritime activities are able to operate feely together with ensuring that many communications satellites on which we are all so dependent on are properly protected is vital and we should stop the constant internal bickering and politically inspired debate over funding.

While the Integrated Review process has, I understand, now been speeded up within the MOD another three months of delay before strategy and formal policy is agreed and made known, how it will be funded and how military and industry will work together to achieve what is required needs to be speeded up. 

One of the very few positive announcements this year came in July with Airbus Defence and Space signing contracts with the MOD to extend and enhance the current Skynet fleet through development, manufacture, cyber protection, assembly, integration, test and launch of the first of a new breed of military communications satellites – Skynet 6A which has a planned launch date in 2025.

The Skynet communications satellite programme dates all the way back to September 1969 when the first of what would be a large family of military communications satellites was launched.

Airbus has been involved in all Skynet phases since 1974 and this phase builds on a strong UK commitment to space manufacturing in the UK. The recent programme commenced by using the legacy Skynet 4 satellites and then augmenting them with a fully refurbished ground network before launching the Skynet 5A, 5B, 5C and 5D satellites between 2007 and 2012. Airbus has been providing a range of space-based services to customers worldwide including supportingthe UK Armed Forces, and its NATO Allies for many decades and is highly respected by the military for ensuring reliability of operation just as it also is by members of the UK military deployed overseas.

Airbus has owned and been responsible for operating the Skynet military communications system, providing 24/7 services across the world, for more than 15 years on behalf of the UK MOD. The company recently announced its partnership with KBR, Leidos, Northrop Grumman and QinetiQ to work together for the next phase of proving secure milsatcoms for the UK MOD focusing on new thinking and greater involvement of SMEs. 

The Skynet 5 programme has been providing the UK MOD with a superb suite of highly robust, reliable and secure military communications services, supporting global operations since 2003. Suffice to say that Skynet 5 programme has reduced or removed many of the technical and service risks for the MOD, whilst ensuring unrivalled secure satcoms and innovation to UK forces. Ensuring delivery of what is an exceptionally reliable Skynet service to the MOD across the world is worthy of commendations but it is worth noting too that Airbus teams have, due to continuously increasing demand, invested in order to significantly extend the lifespan of various of the Skynet satellites many years beyond their original design life. Awarding the Skynet 6 contract to Airbus will in my view, just as the company has demonstrated through the many decades of operating Skynet military satellite capability, will provide the UK MOD with the consistency that it needs combined with reduced risk. 

The Skynet 6A satellite will be based on Airbus’ Eurostar Neo telecommunications satellite platform. It will utilise more of the radio frequency spectrum available for satellite communications and the latest digital processing to provide both more capacity and greater versatility than Skynet 5 satellites.  The satellite will feature electric orbit raising propulsion as well as electric station keeping systems for maximum cost effectiveness.  Complete satellite integration will take place at Airbus facilities in the UK followed by testing using RAL Space testing facilities at Harwell in Oxfordshire supporting the UK Space Agency initiative for sovereign UK end-to-end satellite production and support.

CHW (London – 17th September 2020)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS 

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon



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