Spy satellites destined for Scottish spaceports

The arms industry is preparing to use two spaceports planned for Scotland to launch military spy satellites, an investigation by The Ferret can reveal.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) wants to launch surveillance and intelligence-gathering satellites from rocket launch pads planned for the A’ Mhoine peninsula on the north coast of Sutherland, and on Unst, the most northerly of the Shetland Islands.

Multinational arms companies, including Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, Leonardo, Raytheon and Chemring, are also manoeuvring to take advantage of the spaceports, and to cash in on the expected boom in the UK’s £15 billion space business.

The arms industry’s trade association held a reception at Holyrood to highlight “opportunities” in space, while Lockheed Martin has lobbied a minister and MSPs ten times in the last two years in support of spaceports.

The spaceports proposed for Sutherland and Shetland have both been marketed as “commercial” developments for climate and communications satellites. But insiders, experts and campaigners all say they will end up being used to help “militarise” space.

Following The Ferret’s investigation, disarmament campaigners have demanded that military use of the two sites be ruled out by both the Scottish and UK governments. But both governments declined to do that, while arms firms welcomed the spaceports and highlighted their role “in keeping us safe”.

The £17 million Space Hub Sutherland is being developed by the Scottish Government’s agency, Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE). It was given planning permission by Highland Council in June 2020 and Scottish ministers in August, but its business case still needs to be approved.

HIE stressed on its website that the hub was not for the arms industry. “Our site is being designed as a commercial spaceport,” it said. “It is not a military facility.”

But when questioned by The Ferret, HIE accepted that the hub “will cater for a range of customers”, who have yet to be chosen. Experts say that one is likely to be the MoD.

The online industry newsletter, Defence News, reported in 2018 that the Royal Air Force (RAF) capability development chief, Simon Rochelle, was keen to use the Sutherland hub.

“The creation of a new spaceport in Scotland has the British military eyeing the ability to get national security payloads into space in as little as 72 hours,” the report said.

“What the first payload could be is unclear, but Rochelle told reporters at a Lockheed briefing that he wants to see the UK’s persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities in space increase.”

Another leading customer for Space Hub Sutherland is likely to be the world’s biggest arms company, Lockheed Martin. It has been helping to develop spaceports after being given £23.5 million for that purpose by Westminster’s UK Space Agency in 2018.

Lockheed has also been involved in the Shetland Space Centre, proposed by a company of the same name for Saxa Vord on Unst, also home to a RAF radar station. The centre made an initial planning application to Shetland Islands Council in March.

“Interest in our launch and ground station plans from the space industry, commercial and military, across the world is huge,” said the centre’s website.

It was coy, however, on the role of Lockheed. “There are some announcements which will be made in due course but, for commercial confidentiality reasons, we can’t comment any further at this time,” added the centre.

“There will be no missiles from the site. It is a commercial development – payloads would be either commercial or governmental.”

In July 2019, the MoD announced it was going to spend £30 million to develop small satellites. “The programme may eventually see live high-resolution video beamed directly into the cockpit of the RAF’s fighter jet fleet, providing pilots with unprecedented levels of battle awareness,” the MoD said.

The MoD is also collaborating with US President’s Trump’s Operation Olympic Defender. This was “a multinational coalition formed to strengthen deterrence against hostile actors in space,” it said.

The defence secretary in July 2019, Penny Mordaunt, declared: “The sky is no longer the limit for our armed forces.”

In July 2020 UKspace, the industry’s trade association, announced it had partnered with the RAF to develop new technology to “enable enhanced coordination of military and commercial space operations.” This will help US Operation Olympic Defender, it said.

The Ministry of Defence told The Ferret that the Sutherland and Shetland spaceports “offer an exciting route to enhance the future prosperity of the UK”.

An MoD spokesperson said: “Spaceports will provide opportunity for a range of customers, especially in the context of improving global communications and data sharing.”

The trade body, ADS, which represents over 1,100 UK aerospace, defence, security and space businesses, also expressed its interest. “The development of spaceports in Scotland provides an important next step for the UK’s space industry and its expertise,” said an ADS spokesperson.

“The sector plays an integral role both in enabling our everyday lives and in keeping us safe. This vital activity supports jobs in Scotland and the investment it will attract will support many more in the years to come.”

Arms industry lobbying for spaceports

ADS and Lockheed held a joint reception in the Scottish Parliament on 3 September 2019 “celebrating Scotland’s opportunities in the space sector”. Hosted by the Conservative MSP, John Scott, it included speeches from Lockheed’s UK space director, Nik Smith, and ADS Scotland chair, Stuart Gallacher, from BAE Systems.

Lockheed has also been lobbying Scottish ministers and MSPs to back spaceports. According to Holyrood’s lobbying register, the company met the trade minister, Ivan McKee, five times to discuss spaceports in 2019, once at the Grosvenor Hotel in Edinburgh and once at a dinner at Mackays Hotel in Wick.

The company also lobbied the Sutherland SNP MSP, Gail Ross, four times in 2019, and the Shetland Liberal Democrat MSP, Tavish Scott, once in 2018. According to the company, the lobbying was to brief politicians “on Lockheed Martin’s spaceport proposal” and “to gain support for the opportunity”.

Defence companies have also played a leading role in the Scottish Space Leadership Council. This was set up by Scottish Enterprise in 2017 to bring together “key figures from the private and public sectors to drive growth, collaboration and alignment”.

No list of members has been published, but the header logo on the council’s Twitter and LinkedIn websites named several major weapons firms. They included Leonardo, Raytheon, BAE Systems, and Chemring Energetics UK.

The leadership council is chaired by John Innes, who works for the Italian arms company, Leonardo, in Edinburgh. The council was “a voluntary group of industry companies with an interest in the space sector,” he said.

“It provides a forum for industry to discuss and explore common issues linked to the UK space industry in order to develop common views with the aim of interacting at a sectoral level with UK Space Agency, Civil Aviation Authority and government to promote an industry view of how common issues and challenges should be tackled.”

When Innes was asked by The Ferret whether he could release a list of council members, he said he would ask the membership for permission.

According to Alexandra Stickings, an expert on space policy and security at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank in London, the Sutherland and Shetland spaceports will need military contracts to be viable.

“I am of the opinion that the proposed spaceports would need the MoD as a customer to survive as well as securing contracts with companies such as Lockheed,” she said.

“Militaries are likely to want to diversify their launch capabilities, so the Scottish locations could provide an option for certain future missions.”

She added: “There is also a possibility that if these sites become a reality, there will be pressure on the MoD to support them even if the cost is more than other providers.”

According to the industry, UK space businesses had an annual turnover of £14.8 billion in 2019 and have grown 60 per cent since 2010. But much military space activity has been hidden.

A study by the University of Edinburgh published in March 2020 pointed out that military space applications were “by and large classified”. The military space sector was “rumoured to be up to 10 times the worth of government’s civil space exploration programmes,” it said.

Critics also pointed to the experience in New Zealand, where a spaceport presented in 2008 as commercial has since been mostly used for military launches, including US spy satellites. The change reportedly prompted Mark Rocket, one of the original investors in Rocket Lab on the Mahia peninsula, to pull out in 2011.

Spaceports ‘should not be for military use’

Campaigners have no doubt that the Scottish spaceports will be used for military launches. “I am absolutely sure that there will be a military use of these spaceports,” said David Webb, convenor of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space.

“It can be no coincidence that the spaceports will be used to launch mini-satellites, which the MoD is also focussing its attention on as a UK specialism in space warfare. As both spaceports are being backed by Lockheed Martin, there is little doubt what the aim is.”

Webb argued that small satellites launched from Sutherland and Shetland could have a dual military and commercial use. “Mini-satellites can be used for communications, navigation, reconnaissance, or even as manoeuvrable inspection satellites,” he added.

Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade criticised arms companies for arming despots and fuelling wars. “The Ministry of Defence has a lot of questions to answer,” he said.

“There have been too many weasel-words, inconsistencies and equivocations. Once the sites are ready they will be permanent features, so that scrutiny needs to applied now before it is too late,” he added.

“There must be a clear and unambiguous assurance that these sites will not be used for military purposes either now or in the future.”

The Scottish Greens called on the Scottish Government to demand that the spaceports were not used for military purposes. “People get excited about the word spaceport,” said highlands and islands MSP, John Finnie.

“But let’s be clear that Scotland should not be used as a military airbase and testing ground for the Ministry of Defence, or indeed any other nation’s military.”

Highlands and Islands Enterprise pointed out that planning permission for the Sutherland spaceport limited launches to 12 a year. “Space Hub Sutherland will be a small-scale, commercial spaceport, launching satellites into orbit,” said an HIE spokesperson.

“Vertical launch is recognised as a key element of the UK’s growing space capability and the Sutherland project has the potential to support up to 250 high quality jobs in the highlands and islands, including around 40 at the launch site itself.”

HIE expected satellites to be used for telecommunications, weather mapping and monitoring climate change. But it accepted that the site could end up with military contracts.

“Just like an airport, a spaceport will cater for a range of customers. It will be the job of the launch site operator, once one is appointed, to decide who these customers should be,” the HIE spokesperson told The Ferret.

“All uses of the launch site will of course be covered by relevant UK and Scottish legislation and monitored by the appropriate regulators.”

HIE announced on 28 August that it was applying to the Scottish Land Court for permission to build the spaceport as it is sited on crofting land. The HIE board is expected to sign off the business case before the end of 2020 and then the project will go to Scottish ministers for final approval.

The HIE spokesperson added: “All going to plan, we expect construction to start in 2021, with a view to the first satellite launch from Sutherland potentially taking place before the end of 2022.”

The Scottish Government also did not exclude military use of the spaceports. “Our ambition is for Scotland to become the first country in Europe to provide an end-to-end solution for small satellite manufacture, launch and innovation in satellite data analysis, including critical earth observation and environmental data,” said a government spokesperson.

“Space Hub Sutherland will operate as a commercial spaceport that enables the launch of small satellites for purposes such as weather mapping and gathering data to monitor climate change. The responsibility for spaceflight regulation, and defence, are reserved to the UK government.”

Lockheed Martin stressed that its work was “at an early stage” and it was concentrating on commercial weather and global positioning satellites.

The company’s UK communications director, John Neilson, said: “Lockheed Martin is in discussions with the UK Space Agency and space launch facilities in both Shetland and Sutherland about opportunities to meet the requirements of a range of customers, with a particular focus on communications and data sharing satellites.”

The Shetland Space Centre did not reply to requests to comment.

Cover image thanks to iStock/Alexyz3d. The story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.

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