Extending and enhancing the hugely successful UK Skynet military communications satellite fleet, the announcement last week that following protracted negotiations, the UK government had signed a £500 million contact with Airbus Defence and Space to build a new telecommunications satellite known as SKYNET 6A is extremely welcome.
A very long time coming to fruition, the SKYNET 6A announcement comes on the back of the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston saying at the recent Air and Space Power Conference that our Armed Forces needed to operate in ‘five domains’ – with ‘space’ and ‘cyber’ being added to the traditional domains of land, sea and air” adding also that “Information will be at the heart of the future air and space environment which is why achieving and maintaining Information Advantage is so important to all our futures”.
The Skynet 6A deal covers development, manufacture, cyber protection, assembly, integration, test and launch of a new military communications satellite that is planned to be launched in 2025. Importantly, the contract signed by the MOD and Airbus includes technology development programmes, new secure telemetry, tracking and command systems, launch, in-orbit testing and ground segment updates for the current Airbus built Skynet 5 space telecommunications network which the company has operated under a PFI deal since 2003.
Airbus Defence and Space has been involved in each of the various Skynet phases since the first in 1974 and the new phase announced builds on the strong UK commitment that the company has established in UK based space manufacturing. The programme commenced using the legacy Skynet 4 satellites and then augmenting them with a fully refurbished ground network before launching the Skynet 5A, 5B, 5C and 5D satellites between 2007 and 2012 and which have subsequently provided the UK military with a suite of highly robust, reliable and secure military communications services ever since.
The UK is fortunate that over the years Airbus has been able to extend the life span of various Skynet series satellites to well beyond their original design life but with capacity already stretched, increased military based requirements and demand, providing scope not only to enhance the UK’s potion on space, science and technology research but in the process provide a boost to the economy, SKYNET 6a together with the further planned enhancements to the Skynet 5 network are urgently required.
Confirming the deal last week and in pushing forward the point that UK defence must continue to innovate and transform, particularly in cyber and space related activities, Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace said that the UK government “sees space as the newest contested frontier, one in which we need to provide not only better resilience and communications to our armed forces” but also “a need to better recognise the urgency of need to defend and promote space activities”
Military communications aside and that have been a central activity for the UK for the past forty years, having set out its vision for UK space related defence activities back in 2018 the primary requirement continues to be to secure freedom of action in space, fully exploiting its military and civil potential.
Since then the Royal Air Force have in effect set up a separate space command headed up by Air Vice Marshal Harvey Smyth and the UK has also been progressing forward with plans to create Cabinet-level National Space Council. Apart from the SKYNET 6A communication satellite possible additional intentions include ballistic missile defence radar, a global navigation satellite system, surveillance and reconnaissance assets and space launch systems.
Announcing SKYNET 6A Mr. Wallace said that this was one of many solutions that the UK will be investing in over the next decade. Longer-term investment plans for space not only include extending of military led activity defending UK interests mentioned above but also new generation of satellite-based equipment aimed to come into service in 2030 and beyond. However, in respect of existing and planned communications requirement, SKYNET 6A together with upgraded Skynet 5 capability will provide the UK with the capability and capacity required well into the foreseeable future.
Interestingly, as Andrew Chuter of Defense News pointed out in a piece accompanying the UK/Airbus SKYNET 6 announcement, that the deal comes just two weeks after the British government took a $503 million stake alongside Indian company Bharti Global in the rescue of failed broadband constellation supplier One Web”, an organisation that although based in the UK has its satellites built in Florida in a partnership between Airbus. The article notes that so far, OneWeb has launched 74 satellites from an initial requirement for 648.
Soon to be denied access by the European Union to the “precise military navigational signals provided by Galileo satellites due to the UK’s decision to leave the EU, the UK government is hoping they can develop the small spacecraft operated by OneWeb to provide military-grade positioning, navigation and timing data for the armed forces”.
BATTLESPACE comment: The PQ we published last week stated that OneWeb would not be sued for military purposes. The decision to order one satellite not the whole fleet as with Skynet 5 was technology driven. The MoD realised that in buying all of the Skynet 5 constellation in one buy meant that the technology was fixed. In buying incrementally the technology can be refreshed with every new bird purchased prior to the Skynet 5 constellation being switched off permanently.
CHW (London – 28th July 2020)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785