Our new global environment demands addressing change head-on if we are to have a sustainable space strategy

In the UK, defence and space sectors are poised for a generational shift


The following is adapted from a speech delivered July 9 at the SpaceComm Expo by Steve Beeching, Viasat UK Managing Director

The global pandemic should act as a stark reminder to all of the once-in-a-generation change the world is currently experiencing. For example:

  • We are vulnerable to an increasing number of rare but catastrophic “black swan” events.
  • Our governments are subject to growing societal and budgetary demands.
  • The world is in the midst of economic power shifts.
  • Our defence and security environments are in a state of constant warfare.
  • Since the age of the internet, there has been an exponential digital evolution and proliferation.

Both realising and understanding this emerging new global environment are essential for the space sector, given its solutions and utilisation are indisputably a central pillar of this evolving new world economy.

I hope to start a discussion that challenges us as a government, a defence and an industrial space sector to meet this generational shift. And whilst the strategic long-term outcome for space is being set during this unstable, turbulent and developing environment, I proffer that there remain two broad outcomes:

  • The growth of space exploration for the betterment of scientific knowledge and space travel.
  • The delivery of a global space communications and data network that allows all things and all people to be connected.

Looking at this second outcome in the context of the space strategy, we should aim to operationalize ARINs: Assured, Resilient and Integrated Networks to meet the multiple and specific demands of its users.

Given that demand for data and data exploitation is on an exponential increase, the need for this second outcome is evident. The challenge is in developing the required objectives to deliver, exploit, and sustain such a space ARIN. There are a number of different user objectives within such a network outcome. For example, some demands of military and security-services missions are greater than those of commercial broadband – hence the need for a defence space strategy. But to be successful, a defence strategy must to a great extent reflect the wider space outcome if it is to utilise and validate its objectives or risk singular large, unsustainable economic investments.

In the UK, the government has started to identify the results it wants this space strategy to accomplish:

  • Deliver the digital economy (IoT, 5G autonomous, smart cities, etc).
  • Grow a country rich in talent with highly exportable solutions.
  • Focus on delivering a growing space industrial base that positions the UK as a leader in space.
  • Drive the prosperity agenda, the sovereignty agenda and levelling up.

And here are some imperative objectives for success:

  • We must create a space environment that is available to evolve and deliver the ARIN.
  • Spectrum must be, and remain, available to deliver the space services driven by customer demand.
  • We must understand and acknowledge that the space ARIN involves the whole interdependent ecosystem of infrastructure and services which must be empowered and supported — not just launch and satellites.
  • Defence missions will have subtle but additional demands in delivering national security and protecting our values and prosperity as it is combating diverse adversarial threats against ARIN using unrestricted warfare.
  • Education and skills investment and planning are required far in advance to fuel the creativity and ecosystem of industry companies.

As we walk through each of these objectives in more detail, the pending conversations must focus on delivering the government results as well as the commercial ecosystem results, but always framed against the overall space outcome.

Available space environment

One absolute need is an international policy for space behaviour. Without this, it will be anarchy, and outcomes will be impossible to deliver. Without consensus on the rights, control and use of space and orbital slots, all investments and objectives are subject to exponential risk. Whilst industry can influence, there is an imperative on the UK government (along with the U.S. and allies) to work, own and deliver appropriate international policy on space behaviour. We must have:

  • Clear rules for managing the use of space orbits. Currently, the UK has no specific rights at LEO orbits, which today seem to be on a first-come, first-served basis.
  • Environmental standards and expectations (for example, the quantity of aluminium to be burnt in the atmosphere).
  • Safety standards expected for spacecraft and launch so there is a common commercial landscape.

Spectrum availability

Spectrum is the backbone that enables satellite broadband to be delivered and drive the bulk of wider space industry investment needs. There is much conversation around 5G usage, but there is more than enough spectrum available outside of 28 GHz. If the satellite spectrum is reduced or removed, we lose the mission-critical benefits of satellite broadband and its expansion for future market benefits. There will be no room left for the oncoming next generation of high-speed satellites.

Space network system (of systems)

To deliver the space ARIN requires massively opening the aperture of the ecosystem of systems required to deliver, run, manage, and sustain a data and communications space network in this emerging world economy. The space network by its nature continues for an extensive period, and it’s these long-term actions that focus future success rather than margin gains:

  • Terminals, modems, hardware, and software.
  • Ground fibre and infrastructure.
  • Management of assets in space requires TT&C stations and SSA.
  • Management and operation of the network.
  • Deep cybersecurity.
  • Computer scientists and analysts as the terabytes of data and management of such complex networks become more automated through machine learning and AI.
  • And, of course … satellites and launch.

Defence and national security

It is important for the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) to establish within its strategy of assured space capabilities those elements – both infrastructure and services – of the space network and the space mission that need to be either sovereign, controlled by the UK or shared/sourced with appropriate governance from allies.

To deliver an effective defence space strategy will require MOD to share its vulnerabilities with industry, whilst becoming a demanding, outcome-focused customer with a coherent, wider and flexible commercial approach. The paradigm shift that combines strategy and partnership (rather than supplier) starts with delivering mission needs, rather than becoming drawn into the trap of product focus. With modern digitisation comes commercial offers of experimentation, try-before-you-buy, leased or managed services, and bite-sized investment opportunities.

Investment, education and STEM

Without the resources to deliver the results there is very little chance of attaining the desired space outcome. Government policy is the confidence fulcrum for driving investment and sector growth. This policy needs to invest substantially in the sector directly and drive national programmes. The whole ecosystem must dedicate itself to talent and STEM investment early if we are to have the resource for today and tomorrow. That means supporting graduate schemes and university placements, fostering greater diversity in the workforce and highlighting the unique and rare skills opportunities that exist around space.

We must allow new, young talent that is growing-up in the digital era to teach and expand the art of what is possible.

Ultimately, a sustainable future space is not going to result from short-term activity or opportunity. Long-term sustainability benefit comes from the focus on managing the space network for the extensive period of time it is enabled. This management needs AI, ML, and software developments, as well as an understanding of how to bring networks together.

Looking forward, our ability to engage and support sustainable operations will have an enormous impact on future capabilities in defence and space. In this context, the managers of the network are the key drivers of future space capability and investment demands.