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Digital Battlespace

Operational doctrine evolves for military space sector

4th May 2021 - 08:00 GMT | by Charles Portal in London

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Skynet satellite. (Photo: UK MoD/Crown Copyright)

Why has the space domain become so important and moved up the defence agenda?

Fundamentally, modern warfare is increasingly reliant on satellite constellations for beyond line-of-sight communications, data links to unmanned systems, intelligence gathering and surveillance activities.  Moreover, many national agencies rely on these assets, thereby increasing the complexity of priorities, management, command and control.                                                                                                                                   

From the Global Positioning System in the 1980s, satellite technology has advanced to the point where the control of UAV swarms is possible, as proposed in the UK’s emerging Tempest programme, providing a network ‘matrix’ that will enable manned-unmanned teaming.

But these opportunities raise ethical questions and bring challenges around rules of engagement and clarity of command.  

Space-based assets have an Achilles heel in their vulnerability to attack or disruption by an adversary. This can be achieved either directly (by missile attack) or indirectly (by cyber-attack), so protecting and maintaining these critical assets is as important as operational delivery. 

Some Western nations have escalated the status of space doctrine, operations and protection up their respective command chains.

The acknowledgement of space as a critical enabler in modern warfare has resulted in both the US and UK increasing the status of this domain.  The US Space Force (USSF) was established in December 2019 as a peer organisation to the USAF, US Army, USMC and USN. 

USSF has a pan-defence remit as shown by its first doctrinal paper in August 2020, named ‘Spacepower: Doctrine for Space Forces’. This document named seven disciplines: orbital warfare, space electromagnetic warfare, space battle management, space access and sustainment, military intelligence, cyber operations, engineering and acquisition. They are consistent with the overall benefits and vulnerabilities of the space domain noted above.

In a similar development in the UK, the RAF stood up Space Command on 1 April 2021, following an initial announcement in November 2020.

Space Command is staffed by personnel from across the three UK military services.  In addition to a UK Space Operations Centre, this new command will have responsibility for the Skynet family of military satellites and ground stations under a two-star RAF officer.  Part of this development is a significant investment in satellite technologies and a launch centre in the Shetland Islands. 

Operational advances would be slower without the parallel spur of commercial investment and commercial space technology, allowing smaller and more agile launch and recovery vehicles, lower power consumption and increasingly accurate payloads. 

From SpaceX to Surrey Satellite Technology and Virgin Galactic, these organisations play an increasing part in military research and development, for mutual benefit.

Moreover, many commercial satellites provide high-resolution images, such as the Chinese Jilin and US DigitalGlobe constellations, together with communication systems such as OneWeb and Starlink.  Together, these commercial products and services offer militaries and intelligence agencies valuable resources to underpin the new military order.

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