John Humphrys - Defence in Space : How Safe Should We Feel?

October 01, 2021, 3:36 PM UTC

To modest fanfare the government has announced its National Space Strategy, a policy which will bring Britain’s civil and defence interests in space together for the first time. Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, said space was now ‘fundamental’ to the success of our armed forces back here on Earth. But given the Ministry of Defence’s abysmal record in exploiting and procuring new technologies for defence purposes, how much safer should we feel now that it is focusing its attention on space?

The new space strategy is about far more than defence. Primarily it could be said to be about economic opportunity. The government wants to unlock the multi-billion pound space industry which is set to expand exponentially over the coming decades. It wants to promote private investment into that industry and in particular to support Britain’s satellite manufacturers. Forty-five thousand highly skilled people already work in the industry and the government clearly sees scope for that number to grow fast.

It’s all part of turning Britain into what Boris Johnson, never short of a boosterish phrase, calls a ‘scientific superpower’. For decades, Britain has been famous for the genius of its scientists for invention and innovation but at the same time its lousiness in turning such intellectual power into commercial success. The government wants to consign that reputation to history.

It’s the defence aspect of this new strategy, however, that is perhaps of most interest. For while many of us, at least until recently, may have innocently seen space as simply a dimension of opportunity – with the proliferation of satellites enabling us to talk between continents, use satnav to visit our grannies and much else – it’s become increasingly clear that space is now also a virtually invisible arena of war. Cyber attacks were not something any of us thought about as recently as ten or fifteen years ago, but now they seem much more of a threat than Soviet tanks lined up the other side of the iron curtain ever did back in the Cold War. Indeed, it may come as a surprise that it is only now that government is getting its act together and mounting a strategy to cope with the threat from space to both civil life and our national defences.

Ben Wallace put it this way: ‘The ability to operate in space is fundamental to the success of our armed forces but also in maintaining civilian, commercial and economic activity.’ In other words, it’s about everything we do.

In the view of some people, defence strategy has always been laboriously slow at keeping up with changes in the world around us. It’s true that there is no longer a defence budget for bows and arrows but all sorts of impediments get in the way of adapting our defences to new threats. There are the vested interests that want defence spending to go on being targeted on the forces and the kit they’ve previously been targeted on – the military top brass who don’t want their share of the action to be reduced, the manufacturers in the defence supply industry who want to protect and extend their contracts, and members of parliament who want to keep jobs in their constituencies: it has been remarked that Britain wouldn’t now have two new aircraft carriers (the need for which is, to say the least, controversial) if the prime minister who ordered them, Gordon Brown, hadn’t sat for a Scottish seat which would benefit from the order. The result is that many lay people scratch their heads about why, for example, tanks seem to remain important when the Soviet Union no longer exists.

But there is no avoiding the fact that the new frontier of defence is in space, quite simply because, to put it simply, satellites control virtually everything these days, not just helping us to navigate the route to see granny but whether or not we can continue to live our way of life at all.

Who, though, is the enemy, you might ask? We are familiar with regarding Russia as our primary potential enemy simply because the nearly fifty years of the Cold War ended so recently and because there is clear evidence of its continuing interference in our affairs – in part through its exploitation of cyber technology involving satellites. Few people, however, (except for the countries on its borders that used to be part of the Soviet empire) see Russia as much of a military threat. It’s China that has become the greatest threat, at least in perception.

But it’s important to consider what that threat might consist in. It’s not that we fear China might want to invade us (as we used to fear a Soviet invasion, a fear it itself fostered through its commitment to spreading communism around the world). In the context of world history, China could be said to be the country least likely to use military power to invade others. It certainly has been, and remains ready, if necessary, to use military power to reclaim what it sees as its own territory – Taiwan, being the most prominent current example – and, in the past, Tibet. But it has never shown any interest in military occupation of countries it doesn’t regard as its own.

The threat, rather, lies in China’s seeking a position of power where there can be no significant resistance to whatever it might want to do in the world. China’s interest is in trying to neutralise potential opposition before it can become actualised: it wants military power to deter rather than to invade. And the deterrent is not about wanting to be able to stop an enemy from invading China – what country in its right mind would even consider such a folly? The deterrent is about securing for China a free hand to use non-military means to expand its influence and power wherever it likes in the world in order to secure its own survival and prosperity. That it has been seeking to expand such influence in recent years cannot be in doubt.

Where deterrence used to be conceived of in terms of nuclear weapons, now it is conceived of in terms of space warfare (space also affecting the viability of nuclear weapons). Put simply, if China were allowed to command space, everyone else would be vulnerable to the threat of having not just their armed forces rendered inoperable but also their ‘civilian, commercial and economic activity’ (to use Mr Wallace’s phrase) if they didn’t do China’s bidding. That’s why the defence secretary says our ability to compete in space is ‘fundamental’. It’s to avoid becoming vulnerable to blackmail.

But now let’s come down to earth. How confident should we be that the new national space strategy, which will no doubt be talked up in his usual overblown terms by Boris Johnson at the Tory Party Conference next week, will actually deliver us from such potential blackmail? It is not the ability of British scientists and engineers to come up with the necessary technology that should cause us to be sceptical. Nor should the capacity of British manufacturers to exploit such technology be our worry. It’s the ability of Mr Wallace’s own department to deliver that should be keeping us awake at night.

Its record is a little short of outrageous. Year after year the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have published report after report lacerating the department for its failure to get a grip on procurement and for its consequent wasting of billions and billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. Most recently we have had the case of the shiny new tank that was going to transform the capacity of the British Army – except that it was discovered, after a fortune had already been spent on it, that it causes soldiers operating it to experience such intense nausea that they can’t function. There was Gordon Brown’s aircraft carriers which now are going to have to be deployed largely without the fighter aircraft they were built to carry because those fighters, the F35, turn out to have their own problems. And further back there were the jeeps British forces used to drive round Iraq and Afghanistan that were so unprotected that they were easy prey for the terrorists’ improvised roadside explosive devices, that cost the lives of so many British soldiers.

You might say it’s unfair to compare failures in the supplying of such military hardware to something on so much more grand a scale as space defence. But why? In the end it all comes down to the same system of decision-making, a system that has been found so wanting. Running whelk-stalls come to mind.

One option would be not to bother. Or, to put it more precisely, to franchise off the whole of our space defences to the Americans. As the French foreign minister put it the other day, in the context of the new defence pact between the United States, Australia and Britain to supply of nuclear-powered submarines ‘down under’, Britain

is in any case just ‘a fifth wheel on the carriage’. So instead of posing as a ‘science superpower’ in space, should we not leave it to those with a track record in deploying the military hardware they need and which actually works?

To many the very suggestion will seem absurd and defeatist. But until the MoD finds a way of mending its bad ways, the question remains pertinent. In the meantime, how much safer do you feel now that Britain is engaging in a space strategy that is ‘fundamental’ to our whole future?

Let us know what you think.