The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the critical importance of space infrastructure like never before. Satellites provide critical services through voice, data and broadcast communications along with navigation, Earth observation, and other key services for government, businesses and consumers across the globe. They connect colleagues and customers, and enable remote communities to keep in touch with their doctors, teachers, friends and families. And crucially, they connect our armed forces who once again have stepped up to help manage the crisis.
The extent to which we rely on satellites for our day-to-day lives cannot be overstated. However, as our dependence on space grows, dominance in the sector and the protection of the U.K.’s assets in space becomes equally vital.
Unfortunately, the necessity for asset protection is growing by the day. There are well-known examples of seemingly innocent space missions capable of interference and eavesdropping, presenting a threat to our national security.
In a bid to address this, the British government’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office launched a drive in August for a U.N. resolution to agree to behavioral norms in space. The only initiative of its kind, it seeks to clarify what constitutes responsible behavior in the field and minimize the risk of accidents and misunderstandings between nations.
Alongside this, a spectrum of solutions is available to protect a nation’s sovereign assets from intentional attacks. These can include bodyguard satellites, Whipple shields, satellites able to monitor what is happening around them, space traffic awareness, hardening against a range of attacks, in-orbit monitoring and the creation of a disaggregated architecture with multiple satellites in different orbits for increased resilience.
A mixture of these, coordinated and harmonized with our most trusted allies, makes sense. While these solutions are effective, innovation in the field is paramount.
The U.K. has an impressive record in the sector to date, but action is needed to maintain this lead. At present, while leading the world in commercial satellite capabilities, we are falling behind in meeting the new emerging threats. The U.S., Russia and China own the majority of the 2,200 operational satellites in orbit, with Germany and Canada among others also investing significantly more.
There is an urgent need to fast-track the development of a sovereign global navigation satellite system and invest in national Earth observation capabilities to support military operations and climate change monitoring. In addition to these programs, we must, in parallel, work out how best to defend them as a capability, now and for the future.
Some of the protective solutions wouldn’t look out of place in a science fiction film, but this is the level of creative thinking we need, with greater collaboration between the government, U.K. universities, and civil and defense businesses. As well as creating economies of scale and facilitating the necessary investment, this will bring about the much-needed innovation and expertise to ensure the U.K. space sector achieves its potential.
With the right investment, the U.K. space sector could play a key role in the coronavirus recovery and help the country compete on an equal footing following Brexit, but time is of the essence. Important decisions on national space capability and security need to be made to prevent the decline, which is currently underway and protect our assets in contested space.
Richard Franklin is the head of Airbus Defence and Space in the United Kingdom.