Space-based assets (satellites and the terrestrial ground stations that communicate with them) provide critical support to military and civilian operations. They are vulnerable to unintentional damage and disruption, and to deliberate attack. This POSTnote outlines how the UK uses and accesses satellites, potential risks to satellites, and approaches to mitigation.
An increasing number of countries are looking to use outer space to enhance their military capabilities. The US, China and Russia, among others, have demonstrated that they have the capability to carry out a range of attacks on satellites using weapons such as ballistic missiles, signal jammers and high-power lasers. Satellites are the focus of military space activities and have a variety of uses including navigation, surveillance, providing early warnings for missiles, and military telecommunications. There are currently an estimated 350 military satellites in space, with the majority operated by the US, Russia and China. The UK has no military satellites of its own, however the MoD leases and operates a series of military communication satellites, known as the ‘Skynet’ series, from private company Airbus Defence and Space. The Government has committed £5 billion to upgrade the Skynet satellites over the next decade, with plans to launch its first upgraded satellite in 2025.
In its March 2021 Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, the Government stated its ambition for the UK to have the ability to monitor, protect and defend its interests in space. It highlighted that space is becoming a more contested domain, and that over the coming decade the UK’s ability to exploit science and technology in space will be an increasingly important metric of global power.
A POSTnote on this topic will update the December 2006 POSTnote on Military Uses of Space. It will provide an overview of how militaries across the world are using space and how countries are seeking to expand or modernise their space capability. It will examine the types and sources of threats to UK space assets, including potential future threats. It will also provide an overview of the technologies that can be used to counter threats in space.