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Q&A: Air Vice-Marshal Harv Smyth talks UK Space Command

By Harry Lye 23 Feb 2021 (Last Updated February 23rd, 2021 16:08)

As the UK Government prepares to stand up a new Space Command, the Ministry of Defence’s Director Space Air Vice-Marshal Harv Smyth tells Harry Lye about the structure of the new command and the importance of space to defence operations and the UK overall.

Q&A: Air Vice-Marshal Harv Smyth talks UK Space Command
An artists impression of the Carbonite 2 satellite operating in the earths orbit. Image: MOD/ Crown Copyright.

Harry Lye: How did the idea for Space Command come about?

Air Vice-Marshal Harv Smyth: There’s a broader piece to this than just Space Command and it’s actually about redesigning the whole of our space enterprise, so that it is delivered in a more coherent manner.

It started in 2019 with the Forber Review, an internal piece of analysis which acknowledged the importance of space, highlighted that the threat in space is becoming much more effective and that, whilst we do a lot in space from a UK defence perspective, our efforts are spread across the services in penny packets of activity. We needed to put new structures in place to provide better coherence.

Plus, we acknowledged that we didn’t have a central owner for space within the Ministry of Defence (MOD), despite it being the strategic headquarters – and obviously space is strategic in nature because, to be completely frank, it enables the whole nation.

So, we’re on a journey and the establishment of Space Command is but one part of this journey, where our focus is to drive coherency into the whole of our space governance and the way in which we run space for defence.

The first part of the journey was my appointment as Director Space, and over the last year, we’ve built what’s called the Space Directorate, one half of the team specialising in policy and strategy, with the other half being capability focused – based within MOD in Whitehall.

Think of Space Directorate as doing the strategic thinking, policy, cross-government coherence, being an international touchpoint with all our partners and allies, and the reach into the space sector – effectively, what we’ve been colloquially calling ‘defence’s belly button for space’.

But this only caters for one part of the enterprise, hence the need to establish Space Command, under its own two-star commander, with a focus on doing the day-to-day business of space. The training of people and generation of expertise, the capability management – delivering programmes and bringing new space capability to the frontline – and the actual operations of space, such as managing capabilities we have in-orbit, or running the UK Space Operations Centre.

Air Vice-Marshal Harv Smyth. Image: MOD/ Crown Copyright.

How will Space Directorate and Space Command better allow the UK to keep pace with allies and threats?

 

Particularly looking through the lens of Space Command and its proposed construct, we’ve taken a unique approach – we have established a two-star command appointment where that single commander has responsibility for not just operations, but also generating, training and growing the force, and also owning the money and putting all the programmatic rigour into delivering new and exciting future capabilities.

Because a single commander owns these areas, this affords much more flexibility in managing risk, and it makes for much more agile decision-making, therefore effectively creating the very best possible unity of effort.

Imagine a single commander who runs the day-to-day business, seeing a threat emerge that maybe has come online a bit quicker than we thought: under our construct, this commander also owns the capability and so could decide: ‘I’ve seen this threat, what I want to do now is accelerate this capability delivery because I know I need it on the frontline, and I’m willing to take a bit of risk to get through the process and deliver meaningful capability to the warfighter at the speed of relevance’.

That will help us be really agile in terms of maintaining operational advantage over potential adversaries, whilst also delivering a really agile approach to our input as alliance members of entities like the Combined Space Operations Initiative (which includes the Five Eyes community plus France and Germany).

Can you explain how Space Command will fit into the structure of UK Defence?

 

It’s not just as clean as if we’re standing up a brand-new entity; it’s not a Royal Space Force, despite the fact that some people joke about that. We examined a plethora of different models throughout the analysis phase, but, ultimately, we landed on the current model, which I call ‘Air-led : StratCom Enabled’.

Whilst Space Command will sit under the Royal Air Force (RAF), it is a joint command, and it is a Space Command that’s delivering space for the whole of defence. In many ways the model is similar to our Joint Helicopter Command, which sits under the army, but is delivering helicopter capability for the whole of defence.

The air-led part is quite key because if we look just purely at where the bulk of space experience sits in UK Defence, it is in the RAF – moreover, the RAF has done an awful lot to take space programmes forward in recent years, such as the launch of the Carbonite 2 satellite programme, and the announcement on the UK Artemis programme for a small satellite constellation in low Earth orbit.

That said, UK StratCom has a very clear mandate as UK defence lead for all multi-domain integration, ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance], PNT [positioning, navigation, and timing] and communications. We didn’t want to undermine the equities of UK StratCom because that’s why StratCom exists – it’s the central integrator for defence, and it’s incredibly important that this role is enabled as it underpins our future warfighting strategy.

We’ve had to put some quite elegant governance models in place, which allow Space Command to be its own joint command, sitting under the Royal Air Force, but with the mechanisms in place so that all of UK StratCom’s space equities are protected and enabled. I think we have met these needs with the proposed model, but undoubtedly over time the construct will be tested and adjusted. However, its starting point seems rock solid.

How does that factor into the upper levels of defence?

 

Sitting over the top of what I’ve already described is a very simple governance structure, which we have enabled at the two-star level, where as Director Space I will chair a new meeting called the Space Alignment Group. The clue is in the title as to exactly what it’s there for; it’s about bringing all the key players from all parts of defence around the table once a quarter to make sure we’re all completely aligned on space.

I then report up to a new four-star space group called the Defence Space Executive Board (DSEB), chaired by the Vice Chief of Defence. If there are crunchy problems that can’t be solved at the two-star board, we can always raise them to the four-star level and achieve adjudication by the very top of defence.

The other nuance that is quite key to this in terms of the four-star board is that the Vice Chief accompanies the Secretary of State to the National Space Council, which is chaired personally by the Prime Minister. So, when Vice Chief steps out of DSEB, he’s had the very latest update on what is going on in defence from a space perspective, and hence can represent that at the Space Council.

What is the timeline for Space Command, and what milestones are on the horizon?

 

The command will be up and running before the summer; we’re still settling on dates at the moment as various other things fall into place. But when it stands up, we must remember that this is just the first brick in a road, and there’s still quite a long journey ahead. We know what direction the road is going in, but there’ll be some meandering in terms of test and adjust with regards the final construct of Space Command: it will take its shape over a period of time.

I would wager that Air Vice-Marshal Paul Godfrey, as our first Commander UK Space Command, will spend the bulk of his tour establishing the command, getting it settled, finding its feet, getting the governance all settled, doing all that foundational work. Then for his successor, their success will be a direct indication of how well ‘Godders’ set up the foundations, and I can’t think of anybody better to trust that role to. He will absolutely get that right.

I have huge confidence that with him leading there, and me leading here in the MOD, between the two of us we can take this forward in a focused and meaningful way – importantly, and to go back to that word I used right at the start of this discussion, in a coherent way, which is what this whole journey has been about all along.