Event | Space

Q&A: DSEI’s new space director Dr Michael Holden 

In this exclusive interview, DSEI’s new space advisor Dr Michael Holden tells Berenice Healey about his role, the DSEI Space Hub and why 2021 is the year of space for the UK and internationally.

2021 is an exciting year for space as a defence domain. The UK Ministry of Defence has just stood up its Space Command, which aims to launch rockets from the UK next year, and has appointed Air Vice Marshal Harv Smyth as director space.

As Defence and Security International (DSEI) 2021 sets out to be the UK’s first big post-Covid lockdown industry event in September, it is no surprise then that all eyes are on space. DSEI’s Space Hub debuted at the 2019 event, reflecting the military’s growing cross-service dependence on the space domain, and it returns even bigger this year.

To ensure it meets this surge in interest, DSEI has appointed Dr Michael Holden as its first space advisor, and he brings aboard an impressive space technology pedigree. Holden completed a PhD on X-ray lasers as part of the Strategic Defence Initiative, or Star Wars as it became known, working on sensor systems. He then worked at Boeing for ten years on the company’s space exploration effort in Europe.

// DSEI space advisor Dr Michael Holden

Speaking of his new appointment, Holden says: “DSEI wanted to grow the Space Hub in 2021. They already have a great team who understand the stakeholders in the space community; they understand the military context of space and they understand the fundamental issues around space. They brought me in with a sole focus on space to look at how DSEI's output can represent the space community better.”

Holden is helping the team put together a programme for 2021 that will include events before, during and after the show in September. It will take advantage of all domains being represented at the show to support the current strategic focus on cross-domain, multi-domain and integrated operations.

“We're working with the teams from the other domains within DSEI, particularly land, sea and cyber – cyber is a separate hub in DSEI – to show that we develop a coherent approach to demonstrate the criticality of multi-domain or integrated operations at the show,” he explains.

DSEI is also working closely with the Ministry of Defence and the wider UK Government as they formulate the National Space strategy, due for publication in the second quarter of 2021.

Technology drivers in space

The recent growth in interest in space might seem like a new phenomenon, but Holden argues this has been decades in the building and it has been accelerating in the last few years.

“I'd say there were three big overlapping phases that have got us to this point,” he says. “The first was the demonstration of the benefits that you get from space in military operations. Then there was the digital revolution, and more recently there's been the private sector investment in space, which has really turbocharged the whole sector.”

It was recognised early in the Cold War that space offered a huge military advantage, but the costs and the sophisticated technologies required to operate in space were prohibitive. Then the digital revolution of the early 1980s drove the transition from analogue to digital-driven by consumer demand.

“During that period, you saw a whole pile of technologies, from processing to telecommunications to displays where the military had always been in the vanguard and at the forefront of technology, and suddenly the private was investment coming in and hugely overtook the military,” Holden says.

“The military's remit became about how could they take commercial off-the-shelf products and modify them. During this time the size, weight, power requirements, and crucially, the cost of all these technological components fell by orders of magnitude which made them a lot easier to put on to space-based systems.”

There are estimates that we've got something like four to five times the level of private investment in space capabilities than we do in government, which is a huge turnaround from a decade ago.

According to 2020 reports, 80 countries now have a military capability in space, and nearly half of them were deployed in the last ten years, indicating the accelerating pace of change, in part bankrolled by a flood of investment from the private sector into space industries. These military assets orbit alongside privately owned mega-constellations of hundreds of satellites that provide connections, broadband and the internet of things both globally and affordably.

“To emphasise some of that that change, the distinction between space capability and non-space capability is pretty blurred these days, it's hard to know where the boundaries are,” says Holden. “However, there are estimates that we've got something like four to five times the level of private investment in space capabilities than we do in government, which is a huge turnaround from a decade ago.”

Holden points out that the US defence space strategy published last year recognised that “the department is rapidly transforming its approach to space from a support function to a warfighting domain” and that transformation has really been seen and adopted by the other countries that recognise this.

“Space is not only critical to supporting the military capability, but also the critical national infrastructure of their own country and is becoming a domain of conflict in and of itself,” he says.

Multi-domain operations

Few modern military operations only use one domain and space, possibly more than any of the others, ironically cannot exist in a vacuum.

“There are large programmes that have been running for more than a decade, now called Network-Enabled Capability in the UK and Network-Centric Operations in the US, which were looking at how equipment in one domain can communicate with equipment in another domain to provide military capability,” says Holden.

“This has evolved over time to much more of what you might call a ‘systems way of thinking’; it's not just the equipment that needs to talk together, you've also got issues with personnel, doctrine, policy, training, procedures as well as the equipment to provide the capability.”

As well as spanning domains, space defence also has an international element, which the Ministry of Defence is particularly interested in.

Space will always have its unique characteristics, which require niche capabilities and technologies and skills and training, but the focus is on how that contributes to overall military capability.

“A good analogy of this is if you send me a message from your phone to my phone, it could well have gone over satellite or over a deep-sea cable,” he explains. “The technologies, skills and training needed to launch and maintain a satellite are very different from those needing to maintain a deep-sea cable. However, the focus is on me sending you the message and all the other contributions are adding resilience capability.”

As well as spanning domains, space defence also has an international element, which the Ministry of Defence is particularly interested in.

“The two main themes that came out of our discussions with Air Vice Marshall Harv Smyth were coherence and collaboration,” Holden says. “A big part of this collaboration is with international partners. The US is very key to that collaboration, but also the [other members of] Five Eyes –

Canada, New Zealand, Australia – are very interested in working with the UK. He also mentioned India, South Korean and Japan.

“We're working to see how we get some of their engagement at the show as well, to make sure it's not a purely parochial UK show.”

// Image: DSEI is planning to open its doors to visitors in September. Credit: Clarion

What to expect from DSEI’s Space Hub

Looking forward to September, Holden says in common with DSEI’s other hubs, the Space Hub will offer visitors knowledge-sharing, exhibitor demonstration and product launches. 

“There will be a programme of events to allow the wider space community to connect with policymakers, procurement agents, technologies and users within the government community,” he says. “This will enable them to understand some of the strategies technologies and, crucially, ways to do business with the government, which is changing, particularly in the space domain. That's quite critical.”

Visitors can also expect what Holden describes as “a pretty stellar showcase event” as yet undisclosed, but even when the shutters close at ExCel, that will not mark the end of DSEI’s space activities. 

“One of the things that DSEI has learned is that we don't just want to walk away at the end of the show in September and then come back and reconvene two years later, so we aim to keep the space community engaged all the way through to DSEI 2023,” he says.