UK branded 'third-rank space power' in damning report

Defence Committee for a Minister for Space to oversee revamping of Britain's protection from above

A rocket using technology made by British firm OneWeb which has had satellites impounded by Russia. Reuters
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The UK has been branded a 'third-rank space power' and its lack of space defence progress deemed 'unacceptable' in a damning Defence Committee report published on Wednesday.

In order to remediate this laggard status, the report called for a Minister for Space to be appointed within the Cabinet Office to provide clear centralised direction and accountability in taking forward the UK’s civil and defence ambitions in space.

It said the need for such an appointment was made even more pressing with space systems under threat of deliberate attack from adversaries and accidental damage from collisions in an ever-more contested and congested space environment.

It also expressed incredulity that almost four years since the UK was excluded from the EU’s Galileo programme, and with tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money spent on considering a replacement, the government appeared no closer to coming to any conclusions about development of the UK’s own space-based Position, Navigation and Timing capabilities.

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has thrown the importance of space as a defence domain into sharp relief," said Defence Committee chair Tobias Ellwood.

"In Ukraine, military satellites have been relied on to provide secure communications, intelligence, and weapons targeting. And, for the first time, we have also seen commercial systems, such as Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites, being used to support operations on the ground.

"However, with this reliance comes risk, and in today’s contested and congested space environment our systems are increasingly vulnerable to both deliberate attack and accidental damage.

“Only recently we saw Russia undertake a dangerous and irresponsible anti-satellite missile test which put the International Space Station at risk.

"Russia’s impounding of OneWeb satellites, and the potential merger of OneWeb and Eutelsat, have raised serious questions about the handing over of critical technology to foreign powers and the need for sovereignty."

Mr Ellwood pulled no punches when assessing where the UK stood in the international space hierarchy.

“Over this inquiry we heard that the UK is, at best, a third-rank space power, lagging behind Italy. And while Government has recognised there is work to do, the Whitehall machine is not moving fast enough," he said.

“When the UK was expelled from the Galileo programme there were no real winners. Now, several years and tens of millions of pounds later, we are no closer to the development of a replacement [PNT] network. Instead, the government’s new space based PNT Programme has disappeared into the ether and we risk falling further behind both our peers and our adversaries.

“The lack of progress is unacceptable. In today’s report we call for the creation of a Minister for Space to provide direction, drive and accountability for this and other critical space programmes."

Updated: October 18, 2022, 11:01 PM