Why investing in the UK’s Space sector matters for the UK’s international success post Brexit

Theresa May’s recent decision to provide £92 million to the UK Space Agency (UKSA) to test the feasibility of building a sovereign Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS),  amid concerns that the UK will have restricted access to Galileo’s Publicly Regulated Service(PRS) post Brexit has re-ignited discussion on the future of the UK’s Space programme. There are genuinely awkward political, security and financial implications to the UK having restricted access to the PRS. But regardless of the outcome around Galileo, the issue should be seen as a catalyst which could help the UK to revive its current space policy, including a better alignment with UK foreign policy. One overlooked way in which this revival could occur would be through the government prioritising the delivery of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs), via the International Partnership Programme (IPP).The question is, why would a space policy focused on the delivery of SDGs help the UK to revive its foreign policy post Brexit?

UKSA’s IPP is the world’s largest ‘space for development programme’, and helps to provide valuable insight into how the UK’s space sector could serve as a driving force to revitalise UK foreign policy. The IPP functions by cooperating with developing countries to identify and resolve key developmental challenges through space technology. Funded by the BEIS’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF – part of UK’s Official Development Assistance ring-fenced budget) and in line with the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee requirements, the programme comprises of a project consortium which brings together expertise across the academic and space sector, to deliver tailored solutions to developmental challenges in the global south.

Graph sourced from UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme: project overview report 

More often than not, such solutions are developed by using geospatial technology to help deliver country specific UN SDGs. An example of an IPP helping to promote sustainable economic growth in developing countries is the ACCORD project in Rwanda & Kenya, which works to advance coffee crop optimisation for rural development. The aim of the project is to achieve UN SDGs 1 (no poverty) and 2 (zero hunger).

The IPP SDG delivery strategy is in line with the  United Nations Office for Outer Space Affair’s  Space 2030 agenda, an initiative set up in 2017 to encourage space faring nations to work together to deliver the UN SDGs. By working together these nations stimulate multilateralism in international relations at a time when cooperation on issues of trade, development, human rights and security appear to be in decline.

Critics may be quick to point out that states can and do primarily cooperate for strategic reasons, rather than for the sake of delivering SDGs. Yet, an overall rise in non-traditional security threats (NTS) is a global phenomenon and requires international cooperation. The rise NTS we’re currently seeing across the globe have predominantly occurred from intrastate conflict. This has led to more countries than ever experiencing violent conflict, contributing to states spending $1.04 trillion a year, in order to combat conflict. Surely then, it is time for states to try to collaborate in order tackle these disruptions to global peace and security. Space technology offers smart, and sustainable solutions to the great geopolitical challenges of our time.

So how can we use space technology to mitigate NTS; and why is this important for the UK’s foreign policy?

The UK’s NovaSAR serves as an excellent example of how the UKSA, can work closely with the FCO to tackle threats to human security. The main purpose of NovaSAR is to utilise its automatic identification system to detect illegal shipping activity. The aim of using this satellite monitoring system is to help curb the threat of piracy illegal drug and human trafficking, in order to increase the potential of safeguarding geopolitical stability. The issue of combating illegal migration and human trafficking is a key priority for the UK. In August, Theresa May announced that the UK will launch a new project together with France in order to foster international cooperation with key West African states to tackle this international issue. This underscores the value in prioritising the delivery of SDGs to help the government deliver its Global Britain vision, as well as better integrating the UK’s space policy with its foreign policy objectives. This is important given that the UK is trying to reposition itself in an increasingly volatile multipolar environment.

So, whilst restricted access to Galileo’s PRS system is cause for some concern for the UK’s Space policy, it is misleading to assume that the future success of the UKs space programme is solely dependent on the development of a separate GNSS or Space Security Defence programme. There are alternative ways through which the UK’s space sector can thrive post Brexit. One solution would be to prioritise prolonging the IPP programme. The key issue is, whether or not the government will continue to re-invest in the programme to help with the delivery of SDGs to enhance the UKs foreign policy post Brexit. None the less, in 2019, the UK will have to report on its progress at the UN High Level political forum for SDGs. So now is the time to re-invest in a space programme focused on strengthening multilateral engagement to revamp UK foreign policy.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
Nadia Khan
nadia.khan@bfpg.org.uk

Nadia is a Researcher at the British Foreign Policy Group. Nadia is a graduate in International Relations from Queen Mary University of London. Prior to joining BFPG Nadia worked in Vienna and Kosovo on Human Rights issues around post-conflict state resolutions. She has a keen interest in British foreign policy, in particular the role played by international Space programmes in fostering cooperation between states to achieve the UN sustainable development goals. Nadia is fluent in Hindi, Urdu, and Gujarati.