The UK’s military wishlist includes hypersonic weapons and small satellites
By 2026, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence plans to spend $2.5 billion on research and development for new technology, with the goal of keeping the country’s cutting edge sharp. Spanning a range of programs from artificial intelligence to hypersonics, the spending plan–announced on June 7–offers a holistic look at the kind of investment and technologies the UK sees as necessary to ensure one of the world’s longest-standing advanced militaries retains its position through the 21st century.
” The next decade will see the ability of science and technology to advance and exploit it as an increasing metric of global strength and an essential driver for economic, political and military competition.” reads an statement from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory that outlines the portfolio.
The Laboratory announced that PS2 billion ($2.5 billion) will be spent between now and 2026, as part of a broader research and development initiative outlined in a 2021 strategic review. Some technologies will incorporate technology that is already in use elsewhere in the military. Many believe that the research will deliver not only next-generation capability but “generation after generation” technology. These capabilities are not yet available, and the technology that contributes to them is not fully understood by the Laboratory.
Preparing to wage war with tools that will be available two generations from now is a way to create the stepping stones for those technologies. These are three of the most interesting programs, geared towards preparing the Ministry of Defence to fight wars into the 2050s and beyond.
In development by nations including the United States, China, and Russia, “hypersonics” is the category for any weapon traveling at five times or greater the speed of sound. These weapons can be used to attack long-range targets and even for nuclear deterrence.
In a brief statement about developing a hypersonics weapon, the Ministry of Defense stresses that the country is a “credible partner for hypersonics science technology.” This will likely keep it in the orbit of other partner countries alongside which the UK frequently develops weapons.
Getting to a hypersonic weapon requires making breakthroughs in materials first, which can then support a superfast missile industry. The Laboratory claims that the weapon will provide “transformational and affordable options to deliver operational advantages for the future UK Armed Forces “.
While it is not clear how each technology in the portfolio will transform warfare, the hypersonic one can be quite straightforward: A missile capable of flying at Mach 5 can threaten warships and armies as well as political leadership. It can also interfere with the challenge of missile defense interception.
Coordinated Ionospheric Reconstruction Cubesat Experiment (CIRCE)
CIRCE, named after the sorceress of Homer’s Odyssey, is a pair satellites that will be equipped with sensors to monitor space weather. The satellites, described as “cereal-box sized,” are designed to monitor changes in the iosophere, the part of the atmosphere where “variations in the environment can interfere with the operation of GPS, communications and sensing technology.”
The Global Position System, or GPS, now familiar as the bedrock navigation technology of civilian life, started as and remains a military technology maintained by the US Air Force, and these satellites will improve understanding of the space through which its signal travels. The military could be better equipped to adapt to unexpected interference by knowing more about ionospheric conditions and how they can affect signals.
Once in orbit “CIRCE will increase our understanding of space weather” and help us keep critical satellites safe from all the dangers associated with operating in space,” Paul Godfrey (Commander of UK Space Command), said.
The CIRCE satellites will get into space thanks to a launcher made by Virgin Orbit, attached to the wing of a 747 jumbo jet. A plane can be used to reduce the distance the rocket must travel. Wing-mounted launches of small satellites may be more cost-effective and efficient than using a rocket to reach space.
Seeing through smoke and other obstacles
To win the wars of tomorrow, the army of the future must be able to see what it is up against. Future sensors are one of the technologies in the next generation (and the one after that). The Laboratory is currently working on a variety of technologies that are all classified under “future sensor “. This group aims to find new ways to share and collect useful information in dangerous and challenging situations like combat in urban areas and terrain that’s difficult for radio signals.
Smoke is a hazard that is both a result of gunpowder and used to obscure sight. An approach to dealing with that is using lidar, and in a 2021 study, a lidar-based technique allowed for real time mapping through smoke at a distance of up to almost 500 feet, or 150 meters.
Another project funded by the Laboratory explores how existing or new cameras can see through snowstorms. The Laboratory can also develop sensors that track small drones against urban environments or open skies. This will allow soldiers to see more of the world, which allows them to make better decisions about how to act on battlefield information.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.