Nearly 20 years ago, nobody in my NASA office wanted the ‘China Portfolio’. Its militarised space programme, combined with its lack of transparency, meant that the country was prohibited from participating in collaborative space programmes. Unlike Russia, which after the Cold War became a strong partner and one bound by the joint treaties from decades past, China never followed suit.
This week’s Integrated Review (IR) implicitly recognised this fact. Its references throughout the report to the Indo-Pacific tilt is coded language for China. In recent years, it has become increasingly aggressive and militaristic in the space domain. Untethered from any treaty agreements, it secretly struck deals with Russia whose technology enabled its great leap forward as a key player in space today.
As a result the IR advocates bringing together ‘military and civilian space policy for the first time’ and building sovereign capabilities ‘…to protect and defend our interests in a more congested and contested space domain.’ It warns that Britain is too reliant on allies for critical infrastructure, notably the ability to launch satellites, and must improve its capabilities.
That is especially important now. Given that there is no real “international law” in space, China has behaved recklessly. For instance, in 2007 it tested an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon on one of its own ageing satellites and the debris narrowly missed the occupied International Space Station. Furthermore, exploding a satellite in lower Earth orbit (LEO) spreads out thousands of particles that can rip through the paper thin components of other satellites.
Thanks to China’s belligerence, the line between military and civil space has become increasingly blurred. He was mocked for it by the media at the time, but Donald Trump was right to create a US Space Force in 2019. US defence capabilities depend on space-based technologies, which must be protected.
So what can the UK do? It should play a full role in stopping Earth orbit from becoming a militarised zone of confrontation instead of the global commons that it should be.
The IR suggests that the British government should contribute to the strengthening of international institutions and ‘increase the UK’s international collaboration across our space-related objectives’. As well as close cooperation with traditional partners such as NASA and ESA, the UK should seek collaborations with non-traditional space partners, like India, and leverage the Commonwealth structure to support a new space architecture to counter the Chinese threat.
It is only by doing this that liberal democracies can lead the way in space and preserve it as the global commons that it should be.
Craig Tiedman is an advisor on space and defence policy, and a former NASA and Pentagon official