STEM investment needed to win the space and digitisation race: Viasat
Viasat UK managing director Steve Beeching argues that investment in STEM and diversity is needed to keep the western world ahead of adversaries in the space domain. Harry Lye reports.
“We are in this era of highly unrestricted, highly competitive warfare with adversaries that are influencing as much on soft power as they are on hard power,” Viasat UK managing director Steve Beeching told us after the Defence Space Conference in December.
“I think those adversaries are investing heavily in areas of those new technology brands. We’ve seen what the likes of China and some of the others are heavily invested in to try and get ahead of this. I call it the ‘space and digitisation race’ that we’re now in.”
The space domain has become increasingly importance to defence and adversaries in recent years, and traditional western powers have looked to step up their presence from a defence perspective.
Most recently the UK confirmed its plans to develop a Space Command, a move preceded by the US and France, while Russia has tested an on-orbit anti-satellite weapon. While space is crucial for defence, something the US realised during operation Desert Storm, it is also vital to civilian life, providing critical to services including GPS and banking.
This access is not always going to be assured, with the testing of anti-satellite weapons and cyber capabilities highlighting the importance of ensuring that space assets are safeguarded.
Space and digitisation
The UK’s new defence budget and formation of the Space Command go some way towards firming up the UK’s footing in the domain. Beeching, however, explained that the UK needs to go further to ensure its space capabilities, as the blurring of the lines between the traditional domains has made space even more important.
“I appreciate the government has just opened up an extra £24bn into the budget, but irrespective it’s facing these relentless and demanding challenges to act faster, to move faster, to stay ahead of these really evolving adversaries and these different threats,” he said.
“I see space and digitisation being at the centre and a lot of the opportunities that occur because we talk of the five domains, I think the five domains, from communications, from assurance and resilience, are becoming more and more blurred. So you really do want to be talking about how do I get to my battlespace communications and offer the ability to deliver my missions, improve my effects, reduce fratricide and keep our service people really safe.”
The UK needs to go further to ensure its space capabilities, as the blurring of the lines between the traditional domains has made space even more important.
To achieve this, he recommends that defence more closely integrates with the private sector to achieve its goals. “I think the integration of the private sector, what it can offer, how it takes the best of breed and layers that into defence so they can focus on the missions, is really important,” Beeching said.
“Part of what we [at Viasat] talked about at Defence Space was trying to say that the government has a really important role to play in that because of the way it adjusts its spending review and how it supports not only the strategic defence spend but the overall prosperity agenda spend around levelling up.”
Supporting STEM and diversity
During the Defence Space Conference, Beeching spoke about the importance of investment in space from the Ministry of Defence (MOD) not being siloed to defence but being used to benefit the wider industry, and UK prosperity agenda.
The company is also advocating that the UK invest more heavily in space-related STEM education, diversity and the broader industry so that opportunities in space can be more readily identified and brought to bear. Viasat sees a more diverse workforce and base of recruits into the armed forces as key to achieving this.
On the wider importance of space, Beeching said: “This new digital economy with 5G, and autonomous smart cities which are all interconnected through this Internet of Things approach; space is at the centre of that. We need to be able to make sure that we take all of those investments, and layer it appropriately to get the best for the country and our networks.”
We need to invest in our STEM programmes, in graduates, in the youth and drive interest across the whole space agenda.
Beeching called for a move to a process in which defence, government and industry are part of a continual process of engagement, which would allow both sides to bring ideas and innovations to each other’s attention when they arise, not just after a contract award.
“In a way, it is a total procurement reform through those elements that say on this new guiding technology, on these innovations, how do we create a continual cycle that moves forward, each and every time,” he added.
“That means the government needs to truly invest in space if it wants to be a world leader, we invest in the European Space Agency, but we need to have the equivalent scale of investments at a national level to drive it, and we need to invest in our STEM programmes, in graduates, in the youth and drive interest across the whole space agenda.”
Beeching explained that while rockets and satellites rightly garner interest, less attention is paid to the computer science roles that are vital in developing the algorithms, artificial intelligence, machine learning systems and software needed to operate them. These roles will become even more important as networks become more contested and congested, and more critical to not only the private sector but also for defence.
“I can see those jobs, and those roles becoming more and more important, but they need direct investment through things like innovation centres,” Beeching said. “I think to some degree that idea is starting to be reflected in the Secretary of State for Defence’s recent £24bn investment talking of AI and machine learning, and cyber, but to get the best out of it we need a process to say, this is what I need and where I need it, and a forum under which to continually evaluate the marketplace.”
// Main image: The ViaSat-2 satellite. Credit: Viasat