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UK Defence Secretary identifies ambitious space program

Stephen Kuper
UK Defence Secretary identifies ambitious space program

Penny Mordaunt, the UK Defence Secretary, has used the Royal Air Force’s Air and Space Power conference to outline the UKs ambitious plans for a renewed space program.

Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt has outlined the MOD’s ambitious space programme, committing £30 million ($53 million) to fast-track the launch of a small satellite demonstrator within a year.

The small satellite demonstrator, which will be supported by a new transatlantic team of UK and US defence personnel, named Team ARTEMIS, will sit alongside a host of other programs that will demonstrate the UK’s leading future role in space.

Speaking at the RAF Air and Space Power Conference in London, Secretary Mordaunt said, "In the face of evolving threats from hostile actors in space, we are acting more closely than ever with our international allies through Five Eyes, NATO and now Operation Olympic Defender."


This includes the UK becoming the first partner nation to join Operation Olympic Defender, a US-led international coalition formed to strengthen deterrence against hostile actors and seconding a RAF test pilot to Virgin Orbit’s small satellite program.

To bring all this work together, the Defence Secretary has announced that Joint Forces Command, the organisation design to coordinate activity across the Armed Forces, will be transformed into Strategic Command and given a greater strategic role across the five war-fighting domains: air, land, sea, cyber and space.

This renewed British commitment was welcomed by Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, Chief of the Air Staff, who said, "I am delighted that the Secretary of State has announced our plans to take our space ambitions to the next stage through Project ARTEMIS.

"When this is combined with our investments in the training and development of our people, improved command and control, greater space situational awareness, and our commitment to the Space Coalition with our allies, it all underlines the important and constantly growing role of space in the Royal Air Force’s capabilities."


The ambitious plan includes a focus on a range of number of areas, including: 

Small satellites: These small, low-orbiting satellites can be sent into space more cost-effectively than their predecessors and can be replaced far more quickly. The program may eventually see live high-resolution video beamed directly into the cockpit of the RAF’s fighter jet fleet, providing pilots with unprecedented levels of battle awareness.

To support this state-of-the-art system, the MOD has founded Team ARTEMIS, a transatlantic team of UK and US defence and industry personnel. Team ARTEMIS intends to deliver the launch of the small satellites and undertake research into the wider military uses of small satellites.

The UK is already a world leader in small satellite technology, including an investment of £4.5 million last year in the Carbonite 2 spacecraft. Carbonite 2 achieved a world-first in returning colour video from low-Earth orbit.

Operation Olympic Defender: The Defence Secretary’s speech highlighted the evolving threats faced by the UK in the space domain. China has tested hit-to-kill interceptor missiles and Russia has conducted successful flight trials of anti-satellite missile systems.

The Defence Secretary stressed the importance of co-operation with international allies in space, announcing the UK has become the first formal partner in the US-led Operation Olympic Defender: a multinational coalition formed to strengthen deterrence against hostile actors in space and reduce the spread of debris in orbit.

The UK will add eight personnel to the coalition over the next 18 months, joining counterparts from the US and other international partners at the Combined Space Operations Center (CSpOC) in California.

Virgin Orbit: The Defence Secretary also confirmed that the RAF has seconded a member of staff to the Virgin Orbit program. Virgin Orbit is undertaking pioneering research into launching small satellites into space from the wing of a Boeing 747 aircraft.

Just last week, Virgin Orbit completed a landmark ‘drop test’ of a rocket at 35,000 feet to test the separation of the rocket and aircraft during launch.

Strategic Command: The Defence Secretary also announced the transformation of Joint Forces Command to Strategic Command to tackle evolving ‘grey zone’ threats.

Following the review of Joint Forces Command as part of the Modernising Defence Programme, Strategic Command will take on a greater role leading integration across the five war-fighting domains: air, land, sea, cyber and space.

The new body will oversee the Armed Forces’ digital information network to ensure the services operate at the forefront of the information environment and continue to lead the UK’s Permanent Joint Operating Bases in managing operations and providing critical advice on force development.

DASA Competition: The Defence Secretary acknowledged the success of Dstl’s ‘Space to Innovate’ competition worth over £2 million to fast track new technologies designed to defend the UK’s assets in orbit.

The competition, run by the Defence, Science and Technology Lab (Dstl), and aided by the Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA), focuses on technology designed to boost the surveillance capability of UK satellites and identify potentially hostile actors in space.

DSTIL satellite ground control station: Dstl has invested over £1.5 million in space facilities at Portsdown West, with the installation of a new satellite ground control station to support future space research activities for the MOD. The terminal will be able to direct satellites in both low-Earth and geosynchronous orbits.

"Faced with the evolving threats posed by grey-zone warfare, our transformed Strategic Command will provide the structure and coordination our Armed Forces need across all five domains," Secretary Mordaunt added. 

Sir Stephen added, "ARTEMIS gives us the opportunity to grow skills, understand the military relevance of small satellites and responsive launch, and consider how to get space-based information to the warfighter in operationally relevant timelines, all of which are vital to ensure we stay ahead of the evolving threat."

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