Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 38

Submission from Klaus Becher, Managing Partner, Knowledge & Analysis LLP


  In addition to promoting science and innovation, UK space policy also needs to respond to the increasing operational importance of various services and applications that are enabled by communications, navigation and observation satellites in space for the successful delivery of UK policy objectives across a wide range of Government departments and other public bodies. If this new dimension is not adequately reflected in the way space-related activities are conducted and coordinated, Government risks missing valuable opportunities for leadership in innovation and good governance, endangers its prosperity and competitiveness targets and is unlikely to derive best value for money in its use of space applications.

  1.  This submission responds to the Committee's call for written evidence on the delivery of public benefits from the space-related activities of different Government departments and the co-ordination of these activities. It presents preliminary results of an ongoing study conducted by Knowledge & Analysis for the space industry association UK Space (formerly UKISC) to give a fresh look at the importance of space applications for government's ability to deliver its policy objectives.

  2.  UK space policy has been successful in adopting a user-driven applications focus earlier than other countries. Generally speaking, however, science and the private sector have been regarded as the users of space, whilst Government itself has not. This particular approach, as reflected in current UK civil space strategy documents, is increasingly out of step with the practical adoption of space-enabled applications as tools of governance.

  3.  In three areas, space technology has now moved from the sphere of early research, technology development and isolated specialist applications to widespread, routine operational use: communications, navigation (positioning and timing) and earth observation, including weather monitoring. A rough analogy can be drawn to the state of computing and information technology two decades ago. As in IT at that time, Government faces the challenge to incorporate revolutionary new technological capabilities productively in its workings. As in IT at that time, it is not easy to fully grasp the opportunities in a fast-moving technology environment. The growing role of technology for government reaches far beyond the issue of space. It is significant that the e-Governance Unit has fast become the biggest unit in the Cabinet Office. The scope of responsibilities in this field is large, and they are highly important for the nature and quality of governance.

  4.  Tools that depend on space technology are increasingly becoming mission-critical for a substantial number of government departments and public bodies beyond the members of the BNSC partnership. For example in international development, sharing space benefits with African nations for telecommunication, agriculture, water management and security is a necessary element of the Government's commitment to eliminating extreme poverty. A wide range of safety and security priorities require space-enabled approaches, including transport security, flood protection, intelligent traffic management and critical infrastructure resilience. In climate-change policy, continuous measurements from space are a key enabler for driving the UK's policy agenda forward internationally and keeping track of worldwide implementation. Government cannot anymore do its job properly without space, but awareness of this fact is still not sufficiently established.

  5.  Just to illustrate the situation: We already cannot anymore imagine meteorological services without constant global measurements and real-time weather pictures. We have come to assume that effortless, reliable, secure, round-the-clock, instant communication exists with all points on Earth. We expect accurate, up-to-date, rich mapping information to be available for all parts of the world, even for countries without functioning public administration. We increasingly demand that our security services know with a high degree of certainty and accuracy about potentially threatening clandestine activities in distant states and are able to respond to crises early and effectively enough to prevent armed conflict.

  6.  None of these expectations can be fulfilled without systematic recourse to satellites, though of course space is only part of the answer to some of them. In an age when everybody enjoys free access to services like Google Earth and even al-Qaida terrorists are known to use GPS for mapping their targets, governments are expected to have superior geo-referenced information at their disposal and use it to inform their decisions.

  7.  The UK Government as a whole has a stake in assuring government communications, including in emergency situations. Satellite communication operates without costly ground infrastructure and is less vulnerable than terrestrial networks. It can provide a backup communications infrastructure in support of national resilience. Resilience also requires assured availability of universal timing signals from navigation satellites, critical for the functionality of other infrastructure networks from power grids to mobile phones and financial markets.

  8.  In the Cabinet Office's vision of transformational government, with secure, shared access to data across government, at home as well as from posts abroad, government communications requirements will be formidable, and by necessity reliant on space communication for some functions.

  9.  With complementary visions of e-government, e-democracy and e-voting, assuring a secure national satellite communications infrastructure looks like a necessity if remote parts of the UK and citizens abroad are to be included. Satellites are the only way to achieve controlled, secure, single-hop instant worldwide communications.

  10.  Uniquely, space technology also reaches remote and uninviting territories, the seas and the airspace above. Mobile broadband communication via space opens the way to safety measures such as live CCTV monitoring of passenger aircraft from the ground, and resilient nationwide traffic automation. On the strategic level, the global reach of unencrypted direct-to-home satellite broadcasting without interfering state censorship plays a central role in public diplomacy to promote international understanding and security, as witnessed by the recent introduction of the BBC World Service's Arabic satellite TV programme.

  11.  Closer to home, the Welsh Assembly Government has identified satellite communication as the only way to include all parts of Wales in broadband services. The Government's commitment to nationwide digital inclusion will require a space component based on cutting edge SATCOM technology, in spite of the misperception that satellite broadcasting and freeview don't mix and the more recent myth that DVB-T is the best way to deliver HDTV digital broadcast.

  12.  A technology-neutral approach for telecommunications services makes sense as long as only the main population centres in the UK are concerned and as long as no disruption of critical infrastructure on the ground is assumed. For inclusion of remote parts of the nation and above all for global connectivity, space-supported communications solutions are an indispensable enabler.

  13.  In Earth Observation, only satellites can capture large-scale phenomena such as weather systems, ocean currents, variations in sea levels or soil humidity. They are also unique as legitimate tools for global information gathering without the need for prior consent and knowledge by other countries.

  14.  Government needs to better understand its direct interest in assuring that these space-enabled solutions, some of them mission-critical for government as a whole, will be available when they are needed. There appears to be a misguided assumption that satellite communications, imagery and navigation systems are market commodities that can be regarded as given. This is to some extent true for communications, though commercial demand alone is unlikely to provide enough spare capacity to satisfy the world's governments' requirements reliably on the cheap in bandwidth spot markets. In navigation and earth observation, there is no viable upstream commercial market without government engagement, both as provider of development investment and as main customer.

  15.  While the UK can claim leadership in the development of successful public-private cooperation schemes to leverage the innovation dynamics in the commercial sector, it is important to realise that government is the main customer for industry in many commercial applications of advanced technology. Government cannot rely that the commercial sector will provide the required technology without sustained public sector demand.

  16.  Organising joined-up government better for the operational use of space-enabled applications for governance in the role of informed lead customer of the UK space industry is therefore a precondition for achieving the competitiveness, innovation and prosperity goals of UK space policy. However, space is still mostly seen as a matter for science and research. The operational use of space is a new dimension that needs to be worked into the fabric of Government.

  17.  Interested departments face the absence of established budget provisions for operational expenditure on space-application services such as advanced image data fusion and systematic change detection. In defence and homeland security, the novelty of the space dimension creates the risk of it being crowded out by more traditional pursuits in spite of its core role in establishing network-enabled capabilities. The recent difficult and inadequate process of drumming up funds for important collaborative programmes such as GMES or ARTES, both with potential practical benefits beyond their science and technology development role, further highlights the need for a review of practices.

  18.  There is an important linkage between Government's operational need for space-enabled services and its investment in space technology. This is well known in defence, and also applies to space in a similar way. Space is far from being a thing of the past. Technology development continues at a rapid pace, and Government's needs will grow as new technical opportunities are developed.

  19.  It would be short-sighted to define Government's operational requirements for space-enabled services in terms of today's deployed technology, such as the current range of geostationary communications platforms or the current generation of Navstar GPS. Communications satellites, satellite navigation constellations and imaging from space are all likely to be transformed almost beyond recognition from what we now believe to be state of the art within the next decades. Worldwide mobile on-the-move broadband satellite communications is already becoming an affordable reality that is bound to revolutionise the way the world does business, as well as public expectations of government services.

  20.  Space engineering faces unique weight and size restrictions, energy constraints, extreme environmental conditions and highly challenging sensor and data transmission requirements. These have consistently worked as key drivers for broader technology innovation and continue to play a central role in the further advancement of information and communications technology as well as new materials.

  21.  Space applications often rely on more than one class of space assets. Integrated devices that use global positioning and timing information from space as well as communication via space have become standard equipment in maritime search and rescue, container tracking for shipping safety and asset management. Services that integrate geo-observation, navigation and communication from space all in one, such as the real-time mobile networked information systems are being introduced in various security forces.

  22.  The strength of some of the most powerful space applications results from the ability to fuse space-derived data with information from other sources, or from hybrid systems that combine satellite links with terrestrial cable and wireless networks as required, in a way that is transparent to the user. Users are often not even aware of the space contribution to the service. There is also the risk that such value-adding space linkages are missed in the allocation of public funds for innovation, since space is generally seen as falling into a category of its own.

  23.  The UK seems to be lagging behind in its adoption and use of such integrated, space-enhanced services. For example, while geographic information systems (GIS) have been widely adopted in government for a variety of uses, there has so far been very little use of space imagery (optical, radar and hyperspectral) for data fusion, enhanced feature recognition and change detection. One plausible explanation for the weak take-up is the lack of central guidance on the use of space services in government.

  24.  The relative influence of any nation on the international system, and prospects for deriving enhanced national prosperity gains within this system depend to an increasing degree on technological leadership, including the ability to anticipate and shape new technologies and their applications. This is particularly relevant to the UK not just for competitiveness and wealth creation but also for the successful pursuit of policy priorities such as climate change, sustainable development, global inclusion, security of commerce and transportation, counterterrorism, conflict prevention and defence.

  25.  More work is needed to investigate the emerging needs and requirements for space-enabled services in pursuit of UK public-policy objectives. The number of actors involved is potentially huge and spans across most parts of government. Much speaks in favour of a cabinet-level review of UK space policy that incorporates this new dimension of practical government dependence on space applications, and also integrates the UK's hitherto strictly separate civil and defence space efforts under a coherent, joined-up national space strategy.

  26.  It is recommended that the Committee examines the important role the Office of Science and Innovation can play in such a context for moving science to applications and enabling Government as a whole to adopt the innovative operational services that are enabled by communication, navigation and observation satellites.

  27.  In addition, some important policy questions must be answered: Should practical applications such as geographic information systems, climate monitoring or ocean surveillance be run in-house by the responsible government departments? Should they be left to science institutions such as NERC's new National Centre for Earth Observation? Or would it be better in terms of value generation and operational efficiency to work with private-sector contractors in a structured, long-term relationship? The latter approach has a particularly good tradition in the UK.

  28.  Uncoordinated, dispersed in-house capacity building in a wide variety of public bodies would have to be expected as space applications are more and more adopted in day-to-day government work. GIS systems, for example, are directly relevant to mapping, planning, land use surveillance, forest management, coastal protection and many more dispersed areas of responsibility. However, this can result in wasteful duplication and weaken industrial competitiveness. Running operational services in science institutions can limit their practical adoption and relevance, eg in crisis management, as well as their commercial exploitation. Reliance on private contactors can pose problems as companies come and go.

  29.  New questions also arise on the European level. In the EU and ESA, it would naturally fall to the UK to act as driver for practical applications and value for money. In fact, though, there is a widespread perception abroad that the UK has no national space policy at all and is only reactive. A lack of strategic guidance for UK space policy and the pronounced separation of civil and defence space efforts have both contributed to limiting the UK's role on the European level.

  30.  In stark contrast, French President Chirac renewed his country's commitment to space as a "grand European project" earlier this year. The UK can only gain from putting this political offer to use by injecting UK values and strengths in a shared effort to build up practically useful space capabilities. The key to increased influence in European space, where most of the UK's space investment is spent, lies in the combination of world-class science and technology with top-level awareness of the strategic importance of space.

  31.  Taking such an approach would open up opportunities to achieve improved leverage of ESA and EU space spending, including GMES and Galileo, for the UK's practical innovation and capacity-building across government as a whole, including security and defence. A stronger political commitment to space would also increase the UK's chances to shape the rules and priorities of European space policy. For example, it could then work more effectively toward allowing a competitive space-industry sector to exist in Europe with less transatlantic and intra-European protectionism. It could also augment a UK-led European security and defence policy, integrated with NATO but able to act independently, with the space dimension that will be required for network-enabled capabilities.

  32.  The dual-use nature of space technology and the strategic advantages its control offers to space-faring nations demand such an inclusive approach to space policy that views civil and security space as two sides of the same coin, at least for the purpose of identifying objectives and priorities. This dual nature also poses a constant challenge to the direction of space technology activities. In the interest of efficiency gains, it would better be approached openly than ignored.

About the submitter

  Klaus Becher directs the international security and technology consultancy Knowledge & Analysis LLP in Richmond, Surrey. He was Associate Director at Wilton Park and headed the European Security Programme of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He has been involved in policy analysis and advice on space issues since 1989. For example, in 2004 he co-chaired the AIAA working group on international cooperation in space exploration. He moved to the UK from Germany in 1999. His application for British citizenship has recently been accepted. He holds a MA degree in political science from the University of Bonn.

October 2006

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