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The United Kingdom is focusing more on both civil and military space, including establishing a UK Space Command. (credit: UK Space Command)

The implications of the UK’s National Space Strategy on special operations

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Space capabilities have become an integral part of our daily lives, yet their significance often goes unnoticed by many. While space has captivated generations and driven nations to push technological boundaries, it remains an unsung enabler of modern life. The National Space Strategy (NSS) of the British Government is a testament to the criticality and potential opportunities presented by space. This document positions Great Britain as a pioneering force within the international spacefaring community, showcasing the UK government’s commitment to space exploration, technology, and research. However, the NSS falls short in terms of signaling increased capital expenditure, setting concrete milestones, and establishing realistic outcomes. This article will discuss the NSS, its potential impacts for UK special operations, and why UK Defence must integrate space with special operations planning and activity.

What is in the NSS and what is missing

The NSS outlines four distinct phases in its journey: the countdown phase, the ignition phase, the thrust phase, and the orbit phase. While it can be argued that the first two phases have already passed, we are currently transitioning into the thrust phase, which spans from 2023 to 2030. As Bill Gates (1996) astutely observed, humanity tends to overestimate what can be achieved in the short term but underestimates what can be accomplished in the long term. Consequently, it is imperative that the NSS undergoes periodic reviews to ensure its relevance and effectiveness.

This document positions Great Britain as a pioneering force within the international spacefaring community… However, the NSS falls short in terms of signaling increased capital expenditure, setting concrete milestones, and establishing realistic outcomes.

Despite its nuanced messaging, the NSS underscores significant threats within the space domain. The strategy places great emphasis on great power competition, which directly affects Great Britain’s security. As the number of state and commercially operated space objects continues to rise, space is becoming increasingly congested and contested (Marones & Nones, 2022). Consequently, states compete for limited resources and often employ cunning methods to undermine their adversaries’ access to space.

Miscalculations in the space domain can undoubtedly lead to escalation and potential hostilities (Harrison et al., 2017). The NSS endeavors to mitigate this risk by enhancing Great Britain’s global influence and diplomacy (HMG, 2021). By setting a global example and rallying the United Nations and other space-governing agencies, Great Britain aims to discourage the weaponization of space (Defence Space Strategy: Operationalising the Space Domain, 2022).

It is important to note, however, that space is already militarized, meaning it is used for military purposes, although it is not openly weaponized, with weapons platforms stationed in space (Zwart & Henderson, 2021). Furthermore, the Outer Space Treaty (UNOOSA, 1966) does not prohibit the placement of conventional weapons in space; it only prohibits weapons of mass destruction. Agreed norms of behavior in space typically focus on preventing the proliferation or development of weaponry. This is exemplified by initiatives pursued by Russia and China, such as the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) (NTI, 2022).

Similarly, Great Britain has outlined plans for the development and procurement of space capabilities for military purposes (Defence Space Strategy: Operationalising the Space Domain, 2022), indicating a national interest in the militarization of space. Whether this interest pertains to Earth observation (EO) and intelligence gathering, missile launch detection, or enabling precision-guided munitions (PGM) remains undisclosed. The weaponization of space is an intriguing subject, as it could provide significant advantages over adversaries lacking access to space weapons. However, it could also be argued that such actions violate the Outer Space Treaty. Nevertheless, it is plausible that these capabilities are being explored, despite states’ apparent opposition to deploying weapons in outer space.

The NSS consistently highlights collaboration and coherence as essential elements for success in space. By encouraging investment, fostering partnerships, establishing bilateral relationships, and promoting systematic concurrence, Great Britain aims to align nations sharing similar global values. The UK-Australia space bridge serves as an exemplar of this approach (“‘Space Bridge’ Across the World,” 2021). This partnership facilitates trade, investment, and collaboration between the two nations, strengthening ties and creating opportunities for bilateral agreements on the global stage. Additionally, it enhances the collective ability of both countries to compete with other powerful states (US Department of State, 2022). As the West pivots toward the Indo-Pacific and engages in regional power competition with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), such partnerships become increasingly relevant (Gilday, 2022; “The Integrated Review of Security,” 2021). Space is a domain of warfare and political influence and will remain integral to terrestrial diplomacy. Neglecting space will put any nation at a disadvantage.

While the NSS discusses an end-to-end approach to space, it does not provide a definitive plan for delivering its various components. The governance and security of space assets must address challenging areas such as the protection of people, processes, technologies, and information (confidentiality, integrity, and availability). Ensuring the security of our people, talent, technology, and information is of utmost importance. Stricter regulations regarding foreign trade and cybersecurity standards for space assets must be considered. The notion put forward by Pavur and Martinovic (2022) that satellites maintain security through obsolescence is no longer valid, particularly as these systems increasingly integrate with the Internet Protocol backbone of the modern Internet. Addressing these potential vulnerabilities is crucial, especially for the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the wider security infrastructure of the UK, as they directly impact the protection of national interests.

What significance does the NSS have for special operations?

The National Security Strategy (NSS) presents a valuable opportunity for the MoD by allocating £5 billion ($6.4 billion) to Space Command over the next decade. Additionally, there is an additional £1.4 billion earmarked for acquiring and developing space technologies (HMG, 2021). This demonstrates the UK government’s commitment to sponsoring and supporting space capabilities for military and security purposes.

While the NSS discusses an end-to-end approach to space, it does not provide a definitive plan for delivering its various components.

It is important to note that this increased investment does not directly benefit special operations. Despite that, special operations forces play a crucial role as the MoD aims to position the UK as a leading member of the international space community. Special operations rely on cutting-edge technologies to gain a competitive advantage on the battlefield. The advancements in space capabilities have made them more affordable and sophisticated than ever before. These capabilities enable special operations forces to leverage space-based intelligence gathering, such as electrical observation and radiofrequency (RF) collection, for gaining intelligence, disrupting communications, and operating in data-rich battlespaces of the future.

Usually, there is not a direct correlation between political strategy and special operations, and when there is correlation, policymakers can avoid explaining special operations publicly (Haynes, 2021). Special operations can serve as a signal of political commitment and capability through their actions, but without other supporting elements such as PESTLE (Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal, Environmental factors), special operations forces rarely achieve decisive strategic effects (Long, 2016). However, special operations can deliver decisive tactical actions with strategic implications when employed appropriately. To identify actions or supporting effects that can provide strategic advantages, it is essential to analyze strategy documents carefully. Furthermore, special operations forces have a high tolerance for risk and capital expenditure. This attitude is likely to facilitate the utilization of traditionally strategic space capabilities for tactical purposes.

Next steps

Special operations command needs to comprehend the opportunities offered by space capabilities to effectively capitalize on their unique strengths. It is widely recognized within the special operations community that these forces can effectively target the most hardened objectives in challenging environments to deliver critical effects on behalf of the British government. The first step is for organizations involved in special operations to identify a target set that encompasses these hardened targets in difficult locations. Subsequently, they should determine which space-based assets can facilitate the following principles:

  1. Gain intelligence to achieve insight.
  2. Gain intelligence to achieve an effect.
  3. Create an effect for intelligence purposes.
  4. Perform an effect operation to achieve a desired outcome.

Special operations forces primarily focus on principles one and two but can also pursue principles three and four if the political situation permits. A technical planning session should determine the intelligence and effects requirements, leading to the identification of the technologies that can support special operations.

The NSS offers a valuable platform to disseminate information about current MoD and security requirements within the space sector, while also influencing research and development trends. Such active involvement can potentially provide the UK with a competitive edge in the global market (considering the inevitable global capability requirements), enabling the delivery of exceptional military capabilities and technical advancements. Achieving these objectives is the primary focus of the NSS.


Similar to a business pursuing its vision, the NSS should periodically review its strategic roadmap. This approach ensures government accountability for the proposal and solidifies the NSS as a framework capable of withstanding changes in governmental leadership. Maintaining a long-term strategy will secure Great Britain’s success in space, prevent indecisiveness, and foster the establishment of tangible goals. Given its relative infancy, the NSS currently lacks the maturity of a fully-fledged strategy, limiting its capacity to achieve the proposed long-term objectives. (A strategic plan defining tactical detail is necessary to further the aims of the NSS.) Various government and industry actors will likely need to interpret the NSS to develop their organizational strategies within its overarching framework. While this diversity of interpretation may encourage innovation, it may not be conducive to a coherent space sector in Great Britain, as envisioned by the NSS. Nevertheless, the NSS must reflect a long-term aspiration for Great Britain, and the British government should assess the country’s collective progress to ensure the achievement of NSS targets or take necessary remedial actions.

Overall, the NSS signifies a significant step forward in recognizing the potential of space and integrating it into national security efforts. By capitalizing on its provisions, special operations can harness space capabilities to enhance their effectiveness.

In conclusion, while the National Space Strategy may lack granularity, it signifies the acknowledgment of space as a crucial domain that can significantly impact diplomacy and security. It demonstrates Great Britain’s commitment to achieving meaningful outcomes in its space endeavors, emphasizing the importance of meticulous planning along the way. By serving as a governance framework, the NSS aims to guide organizational planning and emphasizes the integrative nature of space across the Ministry of Defence and its partners. It is imperative that the NSS is viewed as a long-term investment, with incremental reviews playing a vital role in ensuring its success.

For special operations, the NSS presents promising opportunities. By aligning closer with organizations like Space Command and leveraging advanced capabilities offered by the commercial sector, special operation forces can effectively employ space assets in tactical environments. It is crucial for these organizations to develop their space arsenal in accordance with the NSS’s outlined progression, striving to surpass its objectives. Additionally, the NSS should leverage investments made by the MoD, recognizing that space assets will continue to be pivotal in maintaining both tactical and strategic advantages, contributing to British security.

While beyond the scope of this article, it is worth considering further research on the weaponization of space, distinct from its militarization. Overall, the NSS signifies a significant step forward in recognizing the potential of space and integrating it into national security efforts. By capitalizing on its provisions, special operations can harness space capabilities to enhance their effectiveness, while keeping in mind the broader implications and considerations associated with space exploration and utilization.


Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, MoD, and the UK Space Agency. (2021). HM Government National Space Strategy.

United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) (2021).Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. RES 2222 (XXI).

The Nuclear Threat Initiative (2021). Prevention of an Arms Race in Space Treaty.

Defence Space Strategy: Operationalising the Space Domain (2022).

UK Space Agency, Department for International Trade.(2021). ’SpaceBridge’ Across the World Will Help UK and Australia get Ahead in the Global Space Race [Press Release].

Office of the Spokesperson (2022). US DoS The United States and Australia: A Vital Partnership for the Indo-Pacific Region and the World [Press Release].

Gilday, M (2022). US DoD Chief of Naval Operations Navigation Plan 2022 (NAVPLAN22).

Cabinet Office (2021). HM Government Global Britain in a competitive age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy.

Harrison, T., Cooper, Z., Johnson, K., Roberts, T. Escalation and Deterrence: In the Second Space Age. (2017).

Haynes, W, (2021). The Hidden Costs of Strategy by Special Operations. Air University.

Long, A. (2016). The Limits of Special Operations Forces. PRISM, Volume 6, No 3.

Marrones, A., Nones, M. (2022). The Expanding Nexus Between Space and Defence. Istituto Affari Internazionali. ISSN 2280-6164.

Pavur, J., Martinovic, I. (2022). Building a launchpad for Satellite Cyber-Security Research: Lessons From 60 Years of Spaceflight. Journal of Cybersecurity, Volume 8, Issue 1.

Zwart, M., Henderson, S. (2021). Commercial and Military Uses of Outer Space. Springer Nature Singapore.

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