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The OneWeb satellite investment is strategic value for money

A space satellite hovering above the coastline

In the fourth of their series of articles on the politics of satellites, Sir Richard Dearlove and Professor Prins explain why and how this summer’s unveiling of the Chinese leadership’s profound hostility towards the democracies makes the strategic value of a British Low Earth Orbit satellite network even greater, contrary to the persisting and mis-framed arguments of some civil servants.

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Since the Government took a stake in the low-earth orbit (LEO) company OneWeb in June, a decision which we supported and urged in our previous article on Briefings for Britain, criticisms of that decision from within the civil service have not abated. Because the company was bought out of bankruptcy, it needs further large cash injections: it’s double or quits. One argument being advanced is that the investment is not ‘value for money’ which begs the question what ‘value’ means.  Value here is primarily strategic, secondarily monetary. Yet it is monetary too, since, as often in the defence field, failure to invest now will be predictably more expensive in the long run. A stitch in time saves nine. It is always cheaper to deter or to pre-empt a threat than to have to fight it. So the criticism is wrong on both fronts; but strategic value is the leading criterion.

The lesser strategic value – which is large – is that we gain a sovereign capability that the EU cannot sabotage. Reasons why we should be wary we have previously explained in this series of articles and David Banks has recently documented more of them. It also enhances Five Eyes anglosphere security at a time when it faces serious, possibly profound, Chinese challenges.  The greater strategic value – which is huge – is plain if you look with informed eyes in the right direction, which is far east: something which the UK has not done until very recently.

Beguiled by prospects of a ‘golden age’ in Sino-British relations, the Blair to Cameron to May ‘establishment’ failed to notice – or worse, noticed and ignored – the knife hidden behind the smile: which is the tenth of the Thirty-Six Stratagems, lapidary aphorisms originating from the era of the Warring States (481-221 BC): texts and a period (along with that of the Three Kingdoms) that we need to study as closely today as does the Xi Jinping leadership of the PRC. We have been dozing strategically while the PRC leadership has been wide awake.

The People’s Liberation Army long since identified western reliance on satellites and on computer systems as critical weaknesses. It has therefore invested extensively in shashoujian weapons, so named after the Assassin’s Mace which, expertly wielded, could both kill unexpectedly and kill a much more heavily armed opponent.

Anti-Satellite (ASAT) missiles, space-mines, electro-magnetic pulse weapons, offensive and defensive cyber-weapons including unbreakable quantum cryptography, hyper-velocity glide bombs, super-fast cruise and ballistic shore-to-ship missiles (so-called anti-carrier missiles), very high-speed torpedoes – all have these two characteristics as well as favourable exchange ratios: the weapons are cheaper than the targets they destroy, sometimes vastly moreso. Ironically maverick British scientists had cracked some of these technologies years ago, for example hyper-velocity glide bombs, but could not gain interest from our defence bureaucracies. Much stolen western technology goes into Chinese shashoujians.

Such conduct has long pedigree. Professor Julia Lovell, one of Britain’s foremost sinologists, pinpoints 301 BC as possibly the decisive moment. King Wuling of Zhao decided that upper garments should henceforth be buttoned down the side and not the middle. The significance? To be able to adopt the enemy’s weapons and to swop Chinese chariots for horse-mounted archery. “I propose,” he proclaimed, ‘to adopt the horseman’s clothing of the Hu nomads and will teach my people their mounted archery – and how the world will talk!” It worked and he beat the Hu archer-horsemen at their own game.

In the satellite field it was not Russia, it was the PRC, that successfully tested a ballistic missile armed with a KKV (Kinetic Kill Vehicle) ASAT weapon in 2007, blasting one of its redundant FY 1-C medium earth orbit weather satellites to smithereens, thereby creating the largest debris cloud ever in orbit. One simulation estimate is that 79% of the resulting debris will remain in orbit until 2108. It is and will be a threat to space-faring for decades. That proof of capability meant that the PRC now possesses a precise alternative to the wider area effect of electro-magnetic pulse weapons; and there are rumours of ‘space mines’ also: navigable mini-satellites which latch onto and then destroy satellites. All this means that earlier generation systems based on relatively few satellites in high (HEO) to medium (MEO) and geostationary (GEO) orbit upon which the West principally relies today, are thereby put and held at increasing risk by the PLA Space Command and that all orbit level satellites (including LEO) have to contend with the fall-out of that irresponsible test.[1]

Following world-wide outcry, the PRC did not desist. It pressed on and tested refined ASAT

asat earth


earth debris

weapons which minimise the debris fields, notably, the Dong-Ning 3 (DN-3), a HEO attack vehicle, on 13 May 2013.

Therefore the value of adding a fresh level of LEO capability is underscored because it uses a quite different ‘swarm’ approach to deployment: fleets of small mass-manufactured satellites (hence reduced unit costs) which then operate in self-healing complex adaptive networks whereby sophisticated sensor and switching can instantaneously and automatically route around lost nodes. It is a conceptual evolution away from prime focus on a network of satellites as the service provider to the network of networks as service provider.

Therefore the case for up-grading the OneWeb investment in swarms of interlinked LEO mini-satellites by adding navigational and secure communication to broadband service is strategically compelling because it also degrades the ‘exchange ratio’ advantage between shashoujian and individual LEO satellites.  That is certainly ‘value for money’ in a world wherein President Xi’s CCP seems to feel that the force (shi) is with it sufficiently to begin to unveil its profound hostility towards the democracies, which has been the major story of this summer, obscured by misdirection while the western intelligentsia has been self-obsessing with identity politics and virtue signalling.

After the crushing of Hong Kong by contemptuous abrogation of the 1997 ‘Basic Law’ of ‘two systems one country’ with imposition of a national security law on 30 June, Xi’s unveiling disabuses any who once believed that the peculiar mercantilist State Owned Enterprise version of capitalism (of which Huawei is a leading example) which we unwisely permitted to enter the WTO on 11/11/2001 was any sort of step towards embracing our deeper values and world order. The ‘harmonious alignment’ policy has run out of road.

Study Sun Tzu’s Art of War and the Thirty Six Stratagems. The current dynasty of this ancient empire which believes, not without good reason, that it is in a golden age of power after the century of humiliation, was simply deceiving the powers of heaven to cross the ocean. It is the first of the thirty six stratagems.

[1] Brian Weeden, a leading subject expert, notes that the fact that the world-critical GPS navigation fleet is in multiple orbits is protective because it would require many successful attacks to degrade. But this does not remove the risk or the threat.

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About the author

Sir Richard Dearlove

About the author

Gwythian Prins