The UK government’s failure to obtain guaranteed access to the satellite navigation systems essential to defence and critical infrastructure risks endangering national security, a cross-party group of MPs has said.
The House of Commons science and technology committee on Friday criticised the government for not developing “resilient” alternative positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) systems after losing full access to the EU’s Galileo, which the UK helped fund and build, because of Brexit.
This has left the UK reliant on the US-controlled Global Positioning System for critical purposes. But access could be blocked in future or GPS could fail, the MPs said, which would leave national security at “severe risk”.
In a wide-ranging report, the committee called the government’s overall approach to space strategy “disjointed and unclear”. Other criticisms included: delays in licensing satellite launches from the UK; failure to publish a Plan B for if the country is shut out of the EU’s Copernicus earth observation programme; and abolishing the National Space Council set up in 2020.
Committee chair Greg Clark said that, although the UK space and satellite industry is flourishing with revenues of £16bn a year, “the government’s uncertain and disjointed approach is not realising the industry’s full potential”.
“Better cross-government co-ordination is sorely needed to reflect that the space sector is not just economically important but is central to the UK’s defence, national security and foreign relations,” he added.
The MPs said several government departments were working on options to “gain access to secure and resilient PNT” but that no strategy had yet been published. They expressed doubts about whether the constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit being developed by OneWeb — in which the UK took a $500mn stake in 2020 — could provide PNT services as the government hopes.
“There are many technical issues surrounding using low Earth orbit satellites for PNT signals,” the report said. “Ambiguity also remains about the development schedule for full PNT services from OneWeb and whether such services could be provided in a way that is appropriate for sovereign military and critical national infrastructure purposes.”
Because the loss of critical satellite signals would be so harmful for power distribution, financial transactions, transport and defence, the committee urged the government to transfer responsibility for developing a PNT strategy from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, to the National Security Adviser.
With three spaceports being set up in the UK — one in Cornwall and two in northern Scotland — “there is palpable excitement building around the first launch of a satellite in the UK, which would propel the UK into a new space age”, said Clark.
Unfortunately, he added, regulatory delays meant this had not happened in summer 2022 as planned. The latest unofficial estimate is for the Virgin Orbit to carry out a maiden launch from Spaceport Cornwall later this month or in early December.
Clark called on the government to pay “urgent attention” to the licensing process “to ensure there are no further delays . . . and the UK continues to attract satellite launches of global importance”.
The committee said the main problem was that the Civil Aviation Authority lacked sufficient resources to carry out the very complex process of issuing the various licences required to launch a spacecraft.
“Out of the total workforce of 1,200 people at the CAA, only 35 are working on space flight regulation,” said Clark.
A government spokesperson said: “Thanks to our continued support, the UK is now home to one of the most innovative and attractive space sectors in the world, with our National Space Strategy delivering huge milestones like Cornwall shortly hosting the first-ever small satellite launch from European soil.”
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