Like its key allies, the UK is increasingly reliant on space-based assets for daily life in ordinary civil society and for the perfornance of its military forces. So, the Royal Air Force’s operating domain now extends from the ground to far beyond the atmosphere
In a lockdown summer of downbeat aviation news, it is perhaps fitting that a highlight was a model aeroplane in a windtunnel. In turbulent times for aerospace, that aircraft is even named after a storm. But in showing some detail of the external shape of the Tempest future fighter, BAE Systems has also emphasised the UK’s determination to ride out the technological, financial and geopolitical hurricanes which are set to shape the national defence challenges of the next few decades.
Those late August images from BAE’s Warton, Lancashire test facility reveal an external profile designed for stealth at Mach 2, to carry a wide range of payloads and to cope with the internal heat from enough onboard electric power to anticipate exotic technologies like laser directed-energy weapons.
Whatever capabilities Tempest may ultimately bring to the Royal Air Force (RAF) with its planned service entry in 2035, BAE stresses that “operational advantage and freedom of action” is not about a platform but, rather, “a connected system of systems – across the air domain but also including the land, sea, cyber and space, domains.”
In short, the RAF and its allies can no longer say the sky is the limit; projecting power or defending home territory increasingly means sustaining operations in orbit.
But while deciding to bring space into the operational domain is one thing – and in that the UK mirrors the USA and France, as well as NATO – actually creating an effective force is another matter. Spelling out Britain’s response to this air and space power challenge in a milestone July 2019 address, then-UK secretary of state for defence Penny Mordaunt announced the transformation of the nation’s Joint Forces Command into a Strategic Command overseeing all five domains. And, she said, the UK would be the first US ally to join its Operation Olympic Defender, an initiative dating to 2013 to coordinate allies’ efforts to protect key satellites.
Mordaunt also unveiled a £30 million ($40 million) investment “to launch a small satellite constellation within a year”. Small satellites – packing huge performance thanks to modern electronics but cheaper to launch or replace than traditional big-beast units – will, she said: “Eventually see live high resolution video beamed directly into the cockpit of our aircraft, providing pilots with unprecedented levels of battle awareness.”
That live video from space concept stems from a demonstrator satellite called Carbonite-2, launched from India in 2018 and built by Airbus subsidiary Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL). The RAF contributed £4.5 million to that mission, and the concept morphed into an RAF-led project called Artemis, with SSTL, Airbus, Raytheon, the US government and launch provider Virgin Orbit as partners.
More than two years since the Carbonite-2 launch and a year-plus since Mordaunt’s spacepower speech, there is still no sign of that constellation. Much depends on Virgin Orbit, which is to bring its Boeing 747-based air launch system to Newquay airport in Cornwall for commercial and rapid-response RAF launches – for example, to quickly replace orbiting assets lost to malicious interference or accidents.
The California-based Virgin Group subsidiary failed in its maiden attempt over the Pacific earlier this year and may soon make a second try – but there is no prospect of a flight from the UK soon. In any case, there is as yet no Artemis hardware to fly.
The RAF tells FlightGlobal: “Current work as part of the Artemis operational capability demonstrator includes studies into the use of responsive horizontal launch.” SSTL adds that Artemis contracts were signed “just before lockdown” and work continues.
Whatever the timetable, what is not in question is the UK’s determination to be an independent player in space – and that militarisation of space is inevitable. As the RAF puts it: “We take the protection of our space capability very seriously and have measures in place to protect our military assets”. And, while the UK Space Agency provides a “lead” on space critical national infrastructure, the Ministry of Defence “provides the necessary support to protect [that infrastructure] as required”.
A more comprehensive view of the challenge comes from Will Whitehorn, the former head of Virgin Galactic and now president of the trade association UKspace. As Whitehorn observes, from navigation, television and communications to every bank transaction – and someday perhaps to more ambitious services like carbon-free in-orbit power generation – a modern society like the UK cannot function without space-based equipment. And inevitably, he notes: “When you industrialise in space we’re going to have to defend those assets.”
Or, as Paul Day – Raytheon UK’s representative to the UK and European space agencies and a 25-year RAF veteran – puts it, there is no longer a distinction between the military and commercial sides of space. The UK, he says, should own and operate assets where sovereignty is an issue while creating a stable commercial sector, all with a “focus on security and resilience”.
So as the UK moves into space as an operational domain, says Day, the country should invest in several independent capabilities. One is to monitor space weather – the solar storms, for example, that can interfere with electronics – and another is the ground- and space-based radar and telescopes needed to track what is in orbit. Cyber hardening of the assets and communication links is also key and, he says, the UK should invest in communication and computation to rapidly put space-acquired data to operational use.
All of those functions, he adds, are vulnerable to interference either by deliberate act or the simple fact that low-Earth orbit is increasingly crowded: “You have to protect the assets.”