Cover: Realising the Ambitions of the UK's Defence Space Strategy

Realising the Ambitions of the UK's Defence Space Strategy

Factors Shaping Implementation to 2030

Published Feb 17, 2022

by Lucia Retter, James Black, Theodora Ogden

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Research Questions

  1. What factors, both endogenous and exogenous, will directly shape UK Defence policy and decision making in relation to space?
  2. What are the high-level strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) of the UK Defence space enterprise?
  3. How should the UK MOD conceptualise the risks and trade-offs associated with different space capability management options—'own, collaborate or access'?

The UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) is about to embark on implementation of the new Defence Space Strategy in support of the overarching vision of the UK's National Space Strategy to become a 'meaningful actor in space'. This begins in the context of the establishment of a National Space Council, a new MOD Space Directorate and a joint Space Command to drive coherence and to deliver UK Defence's contribution to the broader national space strategy and policy. It also begins from a relatively low baseline of existing capability and skills in some areas.

Realising the ambitions of the Defence Space Strategy will be predicated upon a sound understanding of the factors that shape implementation, a clear articulation of the UK's strengths in the space domain, and a robust assessment of different options for space capability management.

This study provides an initial look at the different factors influencing the implementation of the Defence Space Strategy. This includes a review of the relevant physical characteristics of the space domain, and trends and developments in the space economy, technology and policy, as well as analysis of the unique attributes of the UK space enterprise—including its strengths and weaknesses. The study also presents a decision support tool designed to help decision makers navigate capability management choices along the 'own-collaborate-access' framework articulated in the 2021 Defence and Security Industrial Strategy.

Key Findings

Policy makers and the public may not appreciate the uniqueness or importance of the space domain.

  • Space represents a 'dual-use' arena where both civilian and military actors are highly active, pursuing a variety of strategies driven by political, scientific, commercial, or other interests. Space has unique physical characteristics that must be well understood to appreciate the opportunities as well as challenges it presents for military operations and capabilities. Space also has a unique role as an enabler, underpinning critical national infrastructure and various sectors of the economy, and enabling the majority of Defence operations and delivering advantage to warfighting capabilities.

In space, the UK has areas of both strength and weakness.

  • The UK benefits from substantial strength in certain niche areas such as military satellite communications. Its sovereign capabilities elsewhere, however, are considerably more limited than those of peers including France, Germany and Japan. Starting from this relatively 'blank slate' is an opportunity, but also demands an 'eyes open' approach and ruthless prioritisation of finite resources to maximise the returns on investment as it develops in new areas.

The UK has a range of options for developing new capability.

  • The Defence and Security Industrial Strategy sets out a high-level approach to capability management choices that is based on an 'own-collaborate-access' framework. There are different benefits, costs, risks, and trade-offs associated with choosing when and where to 'own' sovereign capability, 'collaborate' with other nations or industry on cooperative programmes, or 'access' space products and services from commercial providers.


  • Decision makers tasked to implement the Defence Space Strategy should have deep understanding of the trends and factors shaping the space domain.
  • To enable successful collaboration on space programmes, UK Defence must be able to clearly articulate its unique 'value proposition' as a partner in the space domain.
  • Given its finite resources, UK Defence should 'own' space capability where necessary, 'collaborate' where possible, and 'access' space data or services from the market where prudent.
  • Practical measures should be put in place to accelerate learning and enable effective implementation of the Defence Space Strategy, for example through the use of horizon scanning, effective skills and workforce management, robust decision-making and others.

Research conducted by

This research was prepared for the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC) in the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) and conducted by RAND Europe.

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