UK Defence Minister Praises Virgin Orbit, Vows to Strengthen Space Capabilities

Penny Mordaunt (Credit: Ministry of Defence)

Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt Keynote Speech
Air and Space Power Conference 2019
July 18, 2019
Full Speech

Excerpts About Space

And we should be a leading player in space. It won’t just help strengthen our industries. It’ll also provide an incredible opportunity to capture the imagination of a new generation and encourage them to get involved in aerospace.

Fifty years on from the moon landings we’re seeing SpaceX and other private sector individuals and leaders coming into the sector and making use of the technology. From satellite launches to more ambitious projects. It’s no longer a matter of if, but when, the first humans will walk on Mars. And this year we might see the first routine tourist flights into space.

Richard Branson is striving to lead that incredible development. Virgin Orbit has already pilots with astronaut wings. It’s currently undertaking pioneering research into launching small satellites into space from the wing of a Boeing 747.

And just last week, Virgin Orbit completed a landmark ‘drop test’ of a rocket at 35,000 feet to test the separation of rocket and aircraft during launch. Science fiction is becoming science fact. One day I want to see RAF pilots earning their space wings and flying beyond the stratosphere.

So today, I can announce we’re making a giant leap in that direction by working towards placing a Test Pilot into the Virgin Orbit programme. Sending a bold signal of Global Britain’s aspiration…and showing that if you join our RAF…you will join a service where you can become an aviator or an astronaut…where you will help push back the frontiers of space and create a launch pad to the stars.

As discussed earlier, the successful military powers of the future are going to be the ones that most easily and quickly assimilate change to their advantage.

Seven years ago, following Lord Levene’s review, we established Joint Forces Command. We understood that Defence needed a joint organisation to do the things the services individually could not. We realised too, we needed to strengthen the link between experience in operational theatres and top-level, decision-making.

Since then, JFC has done an incredible job bringing together joint capabilities like medical services, training, intelligence, information systems and cyber operations. It’s work has stood the test of time. But our future Joint Organisation must step up to some new challenges…taking on greater responsibility as we adjust to the demands of the future contested environment.

Today we’re seeing state and non-state actors alike operating in that ‘sombre’ zone below the threshold of war…unconstrained by previously accepted norms…using all tools in their armoury…and weaponising information… to catch us off guard to destabilise our societies and our support systems. If we’re to respond, we must have strategic integration across the five war fighting domains – land, air, sea, space and cyber.

That’s why today I can announce that we’re transforming JFC into Strategic Command. Much more than just a name change…this will be a bespoke organisation…supporting Head Office…helping Defence think strategically…assisting our transformation programme…and taking responsibility for a range of strategic and defence-wide capabilities. Combined with its oversight of our global footprint, it will continue enabling our operations and providing critical advice on force development.

I’ve spoken about the contested environment. And the threats that are intensifying across all domains. And in space, too.

When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first set foot on the moon some fifty years ago, operations in space seemed otherworldly. Yet today our Armed Forces depend upon space to provide them global communications, critical intelligence, surveillance and navigation tools, while satellites underpin our national banking, transport and communication networks. And our competitors are doing all they can to disrupt access to these services.

China has tested hit-to-kill interceptor missiles increasing deadly debris and threatening every sovereign space enterprise. Russia is conducting sophisticated on-orbit activities…developing missile interceptors to threaten satellites and electronic warfare systems to jam satellite signals. And non-state actors and cyber hackers have the potential to scramble satellite data and manipulate earth observation data to gain advantage.

The UK must be ready to face these dangers. And Defence must play its part. We can, and we will. But we know we cannot compete in this contested and dangerous world alone.

This government has consistently said we must work more with our international partners. This will bring our unique skills in the UK and experience into closer alliances to multiply the effects we can have.

That’s also why today I can announce we have become the first international partner in the US-led Operation Olympic Defender. This will be an international coalition formed to strengthen deterrence against hostile actors in space and prevent the spread of space debris in orbit. In the next 18 months, the UK will be sending eight people to the Combined Space Operations Center in California to support this operation.

But space is not just fraught with incredible dangers, it’s also a domain of incredible opportunity that we must seize with both hands. So today I’m also announcing we’re investing £30m to launch a small satellite constellation within a year. These small, low orbiting satellites can be sent into space more cost-effectively than their predecessors and can be fixed or replaced more quickly. The programme will eventually see live high resolution video beamed directly into the cockpit of our aircraft providing pilots with unprecedented levels of battle awareness.

To support this state-of-the-art system, the RAF has founded Team ARTEMIS, a transatlantic team of UK and US defence personnel to launch the constellation and undertake research into the wider military uses of small satellites. Given the vastness of the challenge, this might seem a relatively small-scale initiative. But effectively we’re planting the acorns from which the future oaks will grow. Critically, British industry is already a world-leader in these innovative technologies.

Last year we invested £4.5 million in the Carbonite 2 spacecraft which has already sent detailed imagery and footage back to Earth from orbit. One UK company alone based in Surrey is making 40% of the world’s small satellites. So this is a bold statement by the MOD. Showing our determination to invest in our Global Britain, taking military capability further and faster and demonstrating our ambitions are not limited to the skies.