Thursday, August 12, 2010

United Kingdom SPY Satellite - TOPSAT Constellation

The main area the UK armed forces are lacking is in space reconnaissance assets. Instead the UK is forced to rely on the US Satellites particularly the NSA's (SIGINT) and NRO's (Photo Reconnaissance).  This can cause the UK major issues when both of these agencies are reluctant to give tasking time or share information with the Pentagon let alone the MOD.

The MOD does operate a constellation of satellites know as SKYNET 5. SKYNET is a military communication system in geostationary orbit. This is an excellent system which offers enough bandwidth to sell spare capacity to allied nations (Usually the USA). However skynet offers no for of reconnaissance capability.

The UK is alone amongst major nations for having no space based ISR assets. In addition to the USA and Russia the following Nations all operate reconnaissance satellites of vary types.

If all these countries operate reconnaissance satellites then why not the UK. The predominant reason has been that the US have generally been forth coming with imagery when ever the UK needed it. However when the UK has acted unilaterally such as during the Falklands crisis the US has chosen to delay or withhold this vital information. Obviously the importance of satellite imagery for modern combat cannot be underestimated. Not having this imagery means that the UK will always be at the mercy of US policy when acting in its own interests.

UK Spy Satellite History

Zircon was the codename for a British signals intelligence satellite, intended to be launched in 1988, before being cancelled.


During the Cold War, Britain's GCHQ was heavily reliant on America's National Security Agency (NSA) for communications interception from space. Concern heightened at the time of the Falklands War. GCHQ requested access to American Signals Intelligence satellites to assist in monitoring Argentine Communications, but reportedly struggled with the National Security Agency to gain appropriate tasking time, despite the special relationship between the two countries. The United States satellites were engaged in monitoring SIGINT traffic elsewhere in South America related to El Salvador.[1] GCHQ therefore decided to produce a UK-designed-and-built signals intelligence satellite, to be called Zircon, a code-name derived from zirconium silicate, a diamond substitute. Its function was to intercept radio and other signals from the USSR, Europe and other areas. The Satellite was to be built at Marconi Space and Defence the Airport Portsmouth UK, at which a new high security building had been built and would have secured Jobs in the area. It was to be launched on a NASA Space Shuttle under the guise of Skynet IV. Launch on the Shuttle would have entitled a British National to fly as a Mission Specialist and a group of military pilots were presented to the press as candidates for 'Britain's first man in space'.

Zircon was cancelled by Chancellor Nigel Lawson on grounds of its cost in 1987. Following the cancellation the UK is believed to have paid for a NSA MAGNUM SIGINT satellites. This arrangement allows the UK to operate its own satellite. Presumably this satellite can be changed depending on mission requirements.


TopSat (Tactical Operational Satellite) is an Earth observation satellite that was launched on October 27, 2005 alongside the Beijing-1 Disaster Monitoring Constellation satellite by a Cosmos rocket from Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia. TopSat carries out imaging with a ground resolution of 2.5m. Much smaller and cheaper than other imaging satellites of similar high resolution, TopSat has been used to demonstrate the feasibility of providing images on demand to portable groundstations, such as might be deployed by the military or by disaster relief organisations.

TopSat was built in the United Kingdom by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd, QinetiQ and The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory under the British National Space Centre Mosaic programme. The MOD was the largest single contibutor to the program.

The TopSat program was highly successful technology demonstrator able to return decent imagery for a knock down price of just £15 million. It was hoped that the UK would be able to build a constellation of these satellites however with present budget cuts the appetite for this seems to have diminished.

Options for the future

It makes little sense for the UK to go it alone on SIGINT. As part of echelon the UK has access to the best SIGINT capability in the world. Paying for a US satellite makes sense especially given the large cost associated with SIGINT satellites.

Other forms of Reconnaissance satellites however would make sense. While US KH 11 satellites can read a news paper from space they are extremly expensive, difficult to task and of little use for the commander on the ground. Launching a constellation of 5 TopSat style basic imagery satellites would give the UK the ability to conduct autonomous operations and plug a gap that the US currently has. In order to operate as an effective ally the UK has to have something to give back. If the US becomes reliant on TopSat Imagery they might not be too ready to turn the tap of the next time we need some of their data. As Topsat data is low resolution it is not classified and could be sold on the commercial market helping to pay for the program.

Even with TopSat the UK would still be lacking in Synthetic Aperture Radar Satellites. These are required to see through clouds and at night. Germany has just launched its SAR Lupe constellation. In order to save costs the UK and Germany could collaborate with a central organisation giving access to Lupe and Top Sat to both countries. It could further be possible to add France with its higher resolution Helios sattelites and even Italy with its own SAR constellation. The UK could further cement this relationship with access to Skynet. The point being that Allys who are heavily reliant on us will not try to restrict access to us when we need it. To appease the US it would be necessary to deny access of SIGINT data under this system to other European Allies.

The cost of the TopSat constellation is likely to be £100 million outlay for 5 satellites with the need to add an additional satellite per year at around £20 million. Well with in the MOD's budget even in the tighter times we now face.

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