Better the devil you know? Galileo, Brexit, and British defence space strategy


Bleddyn Bowen is a Lecturer in International Relations and expert in space warfare, space policy, and the politics of outer space at the School of History, Politics, and International Relations at the University of Leicester. He was published in several academic journals, contributed op-eds to numerous professional outelts including the LSE’s Politics and Policy, European Leadership Network, and on previous occasions to Defence-in-Depth. Bleddyn has also appeared in broadcast and print media such as BBC Radio 4,5, Cymru, Wales, The Times, The Financial Times, and Wired. He is currently writing his monograph on the principles of strategy in outer space. You can find him on Twitter at @bleddb.

Earlier this week, on 21stMay 2018, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Air Power Association convened the first UK space defence conference. It was believed that the event would mark the launch of the MoDs first defence space strategy (DSS) – a plan to meet the MoD’s ambitions for developing and improving Britain’s military space capabilities. However, as the morning went on, it was announced that no strategy document would be released at this time – the appearance of such a document being delayed to the third quarter of 2018. This would put the DSS on course to be a year overdue after other government departments had produced a raft of space-related policy documents.

This space defence conference transpired not only in the omnipresent shadow of Brexit but also in the wake of spat between the UK and the EU regarding Britain’s involvement in the manufacture of and access to the military and security aspects of the Galileo programme – Europe’s Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) which should be operational by 2020. Galileo is the EU’s equivalent to other sat-nav systems such as America’s GPS, China’s Beidou, and Russia’s GLONASS. Details on the original dispute can be read here, here, and in the many links provided below. On the eve of this conference, theFinancial Times revealed that the UK Government has been considering an independent rival to Galileo since sometime in 2016 following the Brexit referendum, and may offer tenders to Australian space companies to build parts of the system.

In this blogpost I offer some reflections on what little we know about the MoD’s embryonic DSS (based on government statements and live-tweeting from those present at the conference)and how the Galileo dispute is distorting priorities for the current government’s Brexit space policy, drawing on my observations on this little-known policy area. See for example recent academic research on British space strategy, testimony at the Commons Exiting the EU Select Committee, another blog post, and an episode of the Brexit Unspun podcast.

The MoD outlined four objectives at the conference which may become the guiding priorities of the DSS later this year: to enhance the resilience of space systems, to improve operational effectiveness, to enhance space support to frontline troops, and to support wider government activities. In addition, 100 personnel will be added to the MoD’s space roster, adding to the present 500. In effect, the MoD is emphasising what those in the trade of spacepower call ‘passive defensive measures’ and ‘spacepower integration’.

Making space assets and the ground systems they rely on more resilient in a defensive and passive way means making satellites harder to jam, more difficult to hack into via cyberspace, difficult to interfere with via laser dazzling and radiofrequency weapons, and hardening commercial space infrastructure. Another passive method is to establish norms of non-aggressive behaviour in space, thereby deterring such behaviour in the first place (although recent efforts by the EU and USA to build rules of the road in space were terminated by being referred to the UN General Assembly).

Spacepower integration is a catch-all phrase that aims to make space more useful for terrestrial military forces and government users like intelligence agencies, coast guards, emergency services, and infrastructure planners. It also aims to make terrestrial users more aware of what space can offer them. It is about strengthening the connections between space infrastructure and users on Earth so that they can better suit each others’ needs. In terms of defence, the MoD with these headline goals highlights a desire to improve on what allies provide to Britain in battlespace awareness and management (like space reconnaissance satellites).

This is an important priority because at the moment the MoD relies on allies in Europe and America for battlefield information that can only be acquired from space. A reliance on others for space-derived battlespace awareness reduces British tactical and operational independence, and there is no guarantee that allied space assets will always be available during a crisis or war if an important ally is distracted elsewhere.

Modern warfare cannot be waged without the support services and data provided by allied space infrastructure. These are laudable and necessary goals to modernise British military forces, and would reduce the dependency and restrictions of UK military operations on the availability of American, European, and commercial space assets. In addition, many of the MoD’s needs in these areas can be met by the commissioning military variants of commercial assets from the British space sector, particularly in the areas of imagery intelligence and small satellites as well as imagery analysis – a welcome boost to UK space industry during the uncertain times of Brexit.

But these reasonable options for shoring up the British space sector and meeting the MoD’s space needs are being disrupted by the UK Government’s ongoing convulsions over Brexit in general, and by her decision to pursue a British equivalent of the European Galileo system in particular. I have four specific issues with this course of action that have a direct bearing on the MoD’s recent foray into space strategy.

First, Britain’s Galileo replacement Brexit system does not meet the DSS’ priorities of increasing resilience and spacepower integration.A UK GNSS will not add significantly new capabilities for defence as the UK will continue to have access to the precise signals of the American GPS. With a serious negotiation effort it is highly possible the UK will also retain access to the security element of Galileo, and therefore Britain does not need to spend an estimated £3-5bn on a triplicate system.

This is strikingly at odds with Britain’s position from 20 years ago, which was to staunchly oppose a European alternative to GPS. Now, Britain seems intent to not rely on either the USA or Europe for such space infrastructure. It may be that the UK may wish to enjoy some commercial benefits of the services provided by a UK GNSS, but it would have to compete with four other GNSS which will have been on the scene years before the UK system is operational.

Second, a UK GNSS would only address one of the major losses in spacepower to the UK because of Brexit. Should negotiations falter, Britain risks being shut out of not only Galileo, but also Copernicus, MUSIS (Multinational Space-based Imaging System for Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Observation), and the EU’s emerging Space Situational Awareness (SSA) capability as well. Copernicus is the EU’s major space project to assemble all manner of Earth observation data from dedicated EU satellites and coordinating the data of the satellites of member states. MUSIS is a project of the European Defence Agency (EDA) to coordinate similar systems among volunteering member states to share military and intelligence grade data from their national satellites. SSA is the ability to detect, identify, and track objects in space. Although Britain is integrated with the American system, European systems fill gaps in the coverage and improves security by increasing awareness of what’s going on in orbit.

If the UK continues to drift apart from these structures without some sort of deal, it will deprive the UK of a major source of battlefield awareness, spacepower, and intelligence capability that the DSS claims it needs. On a more positive note the EDA recently awarded contracts for its Government Satellite Communications network to UK companies, perhaps demonstrating that the EU would rather the UK stay inside such space architectures. With this being the preferred British option as well, it is difficult to understand why the spat has persisted instead of a focus on negotiation.

Third, the desire to build a UK GNSS risks incurring significant opportunity costs for Britain and any partner it may choose.£3-5bn is a large sum of money for one project given the relatively modest size of the UK space budget (£370m), and GPS costs just short of $1bn a year to maintain and operate. Such a vast sum of money can be better spent on other British capabilities in space and on Earth.

For example, a range of satellite capabilities – such as increased communications satellites to improve resilience, or reconnaissance and spy satellites for UK needs – could be built for significantly less money. Indeed, used in other ways, £3-5bn would be a substantial boost to the defence budget as a whole. It could pay for a complete modernisation of the Challenger II Main Battle Tank with an increase in regiments, a handful of extra Type 26 Frigates, or additional F-35 squadrons. It could go towards meeting the MoD’s chronic personnel shortage in the lower ranks.

These opportunity costs for capabilities in space and on Earth have not being adequately discussed so far. We still do not know from which department the money for this system would come from – MoD, Transport, Business and Innovation? Such a large project will set the scene for a large bureaucratic fight given its inherent opportunity costs for any government department.

The same logic applies to the rumoured partners for the UK’s GNSS – Australia and Japan. In short, Australia is a trusted and intimate security partner but is lacking financial clout, whilst Japan may be able to pay its way in a joint programme, but will present larger security hurdles because it would open up sensitive British cryptographic and signals intelligence capabilities to a new partner.  Additionally, the UK would have to convince both countries to take on a project that is often delayed and cost-inflating whilst they have both engaged in their own regional augmentation systems to enhance the precision of GPS in their countries – the QZSS in Japan and SBAS in Australia.

These raise industrial and sovereignty questions – as partners, how much of the contracts would they desire to take from the UK and who would hold executive control and how? This would not be an independent British system as promoted by many of its proponents – especially since Japan, unlike Britain, actually has the means to launch its own satellites into space. Would Japan insist a proportion of the satellites be launched on its own reliable but very expensive rockets? Such thorny political and economic issues had been resolved in Galileo after years of negotiation and fine-tuning of industrial returns policy in Europe over decades.

There is also every reason to believe that the relatively modest budget of the newly founded Australian Space Agency and the larger but still tightly managed Japanese space budget would lead these two countries to consider whether such a massive investment would be better off in other parts of their space sector when they can still rely on American GPS and their regional systems. This is not to say such options are impossible – the UK would merely trade a set of negotiating hurdles with the EU to get back to where it was, with new hurdles in a less predictable geopolitical and institutional settings.

Finally, this episode has highlighted some disjointed thought or even disagreement about space policy in Whitehall. The UK created UK Space Agency in 2010, the National Space Policy and National Space Security Policy were launched in 2014 and 2015 respectively, and 2017 saw the revision of UK Air and Space doctrine and was meant to see the release of the DSS. But the 2015 National Security Strategy/Strategic Defence and Security Review made no real reference or effort to include space. With these activities going on at the same time, it is puzzling that space was not more prominent in the larger security and defence documentation, and continuous delays from the MoD on its defence space strategy only increases suspicion of discord.

This is especially true if, as the Financial Times revealed, the UK Government has been mulling a British replacement for Galileo since 2016. The surprise at the UK’s third party status to Galileo reported in the media about UK government ministers and the Defence Secretary seems odd if the Government had been exploring options based on its exclusion from the system since the early days of the Brexit cabinets. At best there seems to be disjointedness in the UK’s space policy at the cross-section of industry and defence.

The Galileo dispute has overshadowed the emergence of space as a mainstream issue for the continuing modernisation of British military forces. Whilst the MoD has tentatively outlined reasonable objectives based on passive defence measures to protect its space systems and highlighted the need for improved spacepower integration, the UK Government’s pursuit of a triplicate GNSS system will divert much needed funds for other areas of space, defence, or indeed other policy areas that will notice the loss of the EU’s space ambitions and funding. The opportunity costs of a Brexit navigation system for the UK and its potential partners seem to make this a politically and economically incredulous option given that both sides on the Brexit negotiating table both say they wish for the UK to continue to be involved in EU space projects in its post-EU future.

Working with others or alone in GNSS is not impossible for Britain, but it is trading one range of headaches for another, arguably more painful series of migraines. Perhaps it is better to salvage the relationship with Europe in space. To entertain a polemic characterisation of the EU, better the devil you know?

Image: Main Control Room / Mission Control Room of ESA at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany, via Wikimedia commons

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