The UK MoD put on a strong showing at this year’s SMi Global MilSatcom event held at the London QE2 Centre from November 2-4th. The speakers included, Air Vice-Marshal Paul Godfrey, Commander, UK Space Command, Captain Phil Coope, Deputy Head Space, Capability C4ISR, UK Strategic Command, Mr Barry Austin, Skynet 6 Project Manager and Deputy Head of Networks, Defence Digital, UK Strategic Command, Wing Commander David Black, Skynet EC Project Manager, Defence Digital.
Apart from the general observations regarding the forthcoming UK defence space strategy and wider discussions about the use of commercial satcom on the battlefield, the major topic for discussion was the forthcoming Skynet Delivery Wrap contract and the contract for supply of the remaining Skynet 6 satellites.
Air Vice-Marshal Paul Godfrey said that satcom had played a major role in the ongoing carrier taskforce deployment in Asia.
The key messages emanating from these papers was:
1. Collaboration is essential across civil and defence to enable seamless, secure and fast satcoms.
2. Usage of commercial providers alongside military providers. One statistic quoted during the event was that commercial satcom provided 80% of the services during Gulf War 1.
3. International collaboration is key to the success of satcom programs.
4. The development of the Skynet 7 constellation will start in 2047.
5. A secure UK space domain architecture I key to success of multi-domain warfare. The aim is to produce a Target Operating Model by 2027.
6. The ability to access commercial satcom capabilities is key to the success of the overall Programme.
Air Vice-Marshal Paul Godfrey said that £1.4 billion out of a total of £5.5 billion, has been allocated to the defence space portfolio to enhance space domain awareness and space-based data collection; this money will be transferred to UK Space Command.
Skynet 6 Satellite Production
Skynet 6A will extend and enhance the current Skynet fleet. The contract signed with the UK MoD in July 2020 involves the development, manufacture, cyber protection, assembly, integration, test and launch, of a military communications satellite, Skynet 6A, planned for launch in 2025. The contract also covers technology development programmes, new secure telemetry, tracking and command systems, launch, in-orbit testing and ground segment updates to the current Skynet 5 system. The value of the contract is more than £500 million.
The Skynet 5 programme, provided by Airbus as a full service outsource contract, has provided the UK MoD with a suite of highly robust, reliable and secure military communications services, supporting global operations since 2003. Airbus has been involved in all Skynet phases since 1974 and this phase builds on a strong UK commitment to space manufacturing in the UK. The programme commenced by 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. The Skynet 5 programme has reduced or removed many of the technical and service risks for the MoD, whilst ensuring unrivalled secure satcoms and innovation to UK forces. Through the many years of delivering an exceptionally reliable Skynet service the Airbus teams have managed to significantly extend the lifespan of the Skynet satellites many years beyond their design life, offering significant additional value for money and capability to the UK.
Richard Franklin, Airbus Defence and Space UK Managing Director, who also gave a paper at Global MilSatcom, said, “Airbus is extremely proud to be awarded this critical UK defence contract continuing our long tradition as the UK national milsatcom end-to-end services provider. Satellite manufacturing, linked to support services, is a critical component of the Government-industry UK space strategy and this contract underpins the UK MOD’s and industry’s lead position in this sector. Building this military satellite will, like Skynet 5, lead to significant export opportunities in the years ahead, growing high value manufacturing jobs and supporting a diverse supply chain in this increasingly important sector.
“This contract for 6A demonstrates the strong working partnership we have with UK MOD, built on the success we have jointly achieved on the Skynet 5 system since 2003. Airbus is fully committed to delivering world-class military communications services to our Armed Forces across the globe, and look forward to delivering this step change in capability to the MOD,” he continued.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said, “A new, more advanced satellite capability will provide continued communications support to the UK deployed forces for many years. British defence must continue to innovate and transform, particularly in cyber and space. Investment in first-class equipment like this new Skynet satellite will keep us safe from the threats we face both now and in the future.”
The Skynet 6A satellite will be based on Airbus’ Eurostar Neo telecommunications satellite platform. It will utilise more of the radio frequency spectrum available for satellite communications and the latest digital processing to provide both more capacity and greater versatility than Skynet 5 satellites. The satellite will feature electric orbit raising propulsion as well as electric station keeping systems for maximum cost effectiveness. Complete satellite integration will take place at Airbus facilities in the UK followed by testing using RAL Space testing facilities at Harwell in Oxfordshire supporting the UK Space Agency initiative for sovereign UK end-to-end satellite production and support.
On October 11 aero-mag said that UK Minister for Defence Procurement, Jeremy Quin MP, visited Airbus in Stevenage and pushed the button to start production of the first panel skin for the UK MOD’s next generation military communications satellite Skynet 6A.
The Minister started the high precision cutting machine to profile the first aluminium panels of the near six-ton satellite which is based on Airbus’ Eurostar Neo telecommunications spacecraft as well as visiting extensive cleanroom facilities on site.
Airbus was awarded the more than £500m contract to design and build Skynet 6A in July 2020 and the programme achieved its Preliminary Design Review in December 2020.
Defence Minister Jeremy Quin said, “Secure military satellite communications are vital for our ability to conduct operations on a global scale. Seeing the first hardware for the next generation Skynet 6A satellite shows we are on track for launch in 2025 and ready to upgrade and enhance the UK’s global military communications network.”
Richard Franklin, managing director of Airbus Defence and Space, said, “Airbus in the UK is a world leader in the design and manufacture of military and commercial telecommunications satellites, and working hand-in-hand with the Defence Digital team we have overcome the challenges of Covid and are on track with the programme. We also look to future export opportunities which will benefit the wider space ecosystem and are actively engaged with bringing on board a wider spread of UK SMEs to deliver this essential sovereign capability.”
The contract signed with the UK involves the development, manufacture, cyber protection, assembly, integration, test and launch, of the military communications satellite. The contract also covers technology development programmes, new secure telemetry, tracking and command systems, launch, in-orbit testing and ground segment updates.
The general consensus of opinion at Global MilSatcom was that the PQQ for the remaining satellites, believed to be up to another three, will be launched in June 2022.
David Pile of Northrop Grumman UK, told the Editor that Northrop Grumman UK is gearing up for bidding a number of phases of Skynet 6, including the satellites, and will be expanding its space presence in the UK creating a number of new engineering posts.
One of the messages coming loud and clear from the Conference that there is a shortage of trained space engineers right across the board with the MoD and industry alike struggling to attract the top engineers.
Enduring Capability and the Secure Telemetry, Tracking and Command (STTC) projects
The other two key parts of a program presently expected to cost in total around £6bn ($7.6bn) are the Enduring Capability project, to provide next generation communications capabilities, and the Secure Telemetry, Tracking and Command (STTC) project for providing assured sovereign control and management of satellites.
Teams led by Airbus Defence & Space, Babcock Integrated Technology, BT and Serco, were down-selected for the Skynet 6 Service Delivery Wrap program following the MoD’s Defence Digital organization release of an invitation to tender document to the remaining contenders in June 2012.
However, this process was compromised by the takeover of Inmarsat by Viasat on November 8th which means that Viasat will have a foot in two camps.
The winning Service Delivery Wrap contender is slated to take over ground operations from that point after a transition phase, the winner will be announced in Q2 2022.
SDW Teams In Detail
Airbus, teamed with KBR, Leidos UK, Northrop Grumman and QinetiQ to bring new thinking to future space solutions and to launch the Open Innovation – Space initiative.
Serco declared Team Athena in May 2020. Serco, Inmarsat, CGI UK and Lockheed Martin UK have formed ‘Athena’ to develop additional UK space capabilities, win new business and boost the British economy. Athena is the UK’s new national team in space, formed by Serco, Inmarsat, CGI UK and Lockheed Martin UK.
BT, NSSLGlobal and Viasat have partnered to bid for the Service Delivery Wrap (SDW) contract for the UK’s Skynet 6 Satellite Communications (SATCOM) programme. The BT-NSSLGlobal-Viasat consortium is set to face off against several other teams, for the SDW contract but believes it can provide a ‘fully managed best-in-class SATCOM solution.’
Team Aurora – led by Babcock and including GovSat, Intelsat and SES – has gone forward to the next stage of the competition with its plans progressing at pace. Together the team brings a wealth of both international public and commercial expertise to support the delivery of the contract, and will put partnership with the Ministry of Defence at the centre of its delivery approach.
The Service Delivery Wrap arrangement runs for five years, not including any transition phase, with two single-year extension options also expected to be included in the deal.
The terms of the existing PFI arrangement entail the MoD paying a nominal fee of a Pound in exchange for which it will take ownership of hundreds of millions of Pounds worth of assets in the shape of ground infrastructure and the Skynet 4 and 5 satellite fleets currently operated by Airbus.
Accompanying the Service Delivery Wrap (SDW) is the Enduring Capability (EC) contract which runs alongside the SDW. The EC programme is expected to cover the procurement of new satellite modems, large land-based antennas and naval antennas. The SDW winner will provide the systems integration for the complete system. This time around the MoD wants to retain overall ownership of the capability in order to help grow its space skills and management experience by way of owning the ground station assets with the winning consortium working under a straightforward service provision deal.
LEO, GEO And NEO, The Network, Cloud, Cyber and EW Layer
It was clear from all the UK papers that the final structure of the Skynet 6 Programme is still not set in stone. The UK is looking at a new LEO & GEO strategy to link the various constellations with secure, multiple and complementary payloads using a collaborative approach. and the MoD is looking at new and evolving technologies such as LEO constellations, including OneWeb, in which the UK government has a stake, and other technologies; it has not been decided whether the baseline will be a GEO or LEO constellation. This will be accompanied by LEO software upgrades for OneWeb and Starlink.
For these enhancements to be include in the new space strategy a robust roadmap is being developed with a twin track approach.
Once again, the debate continues about how the network will be developed and which technologies, such as Cloud, Cyber and an EW Layer included, to enhance network security and resilience to counter new and evolving threats. For new systems such as F-35 and other ISR systems to operate in all multi-domain scenarios, there has to be a secure and robust network to deliver ISR capability across the globe from HQ to front line in a seamless secure mode which can accommodate new and existing networks on an open architecture, plug and play basis. This thinking has led to the MoD re-looking at its Morpheus Programme, in particular, and the GDUK EvO contract. The current thinking is that the network will grow like the internet currently does. One speaker recognised that lack of open architecture plug and play in the earlier networks caused connectivity problems with Link 16 systems in particular.
GDUK Evolve to Open (EvO) Contract
In April 2017, General Dynamics UK was awarded a £330m contract from the UK Ministry of Defence to design and develop the next-generation tactical communication and information system as the initial phase of the MORPHEUS programme. The system will be used to plan, deploy, manage and monitor communications and information for the Army. It will allow users to integrate new radios, applications and other system components faster and with greater ease.
General Dynamics will implement a new architectural approach, known as Evolve to Open (EvO), which will evolve the Bowman tactical communication (BCIP 5.6) capability into an open, modular system. The system will connect deployed tactical forces to their commanders, give improved access to powerful operational IT and simplify the user experience. The open system approach allows new technologies to be rapidly integrated to tackle emerging threats and enhance interoperability with allies. The EvO contract is the first to be awarded for the MORPHEUS programme, which will give UK Armed Forces across all three services modernised command and control networks using the latest technology.
However, sources close to BATTLESPACE state that EvO has stalled for two reasons: money, and capability
The source said that GD UK has not completely finished EvO, and the MoD have to consider what to do next. The current spat over the Ajax programme hardly helps smooth matters.
When it was originally conceived to take Bowman to the next iteration to meet current warfare tactics and technology, the Multi-Doman warfare concept was in its infancy, so that did not form part of the consideration for EvO’s technology.
EvO aims to provide a plug-and-play solution to Morpheus to overcome the existing stovepipe proprietary software and technology solutions which do not easily network together.
Multi-domain warfare requires seamless connectivity from existing land, sea and air platforms from HQ to front line using a multitude of bearers be they radio, satcom, 5G or IP.
The source said that to develop an enhanced architecture for EvO to accommodate these requirements is a very ambitious undertaking given that it took 25-30 years to develop the 5G mobile phone standards.
The other obstacle is that in the majority of major MoD platform programmes, the contractor is required to develop a platform without necessarily having a requirement to talk to other platforms or indeed other armed forces equipment; thus, making it difficult to operate as a coherent force.
A solution could be the formation of a system of gateways as the current Bowman BCIP upgrades provide. The biggest problem to the original Bowman system was that the Command systems software used by GD UK, as it did on the Canadian Iris project, did not have any gateways.
Another change in doctrine since EvO was first conceived is that future wars will likely be fought with coalitions, probably led by the USA.
Thus, to save time and money, it would seem sensible for the UK MoD to look at what the US has done rather than try to specify bespoke radio systems for a ‘UK only’ requirement. This could give the MoD 80-85% of the Morpheus requirement at a more acceptable price and within a reasonable timescale.
Whatever the MoD decides, this is likely to delay the implementation of EvO as the Morpheus baseline by at least 2 years to 2024 at the earliest.
Can the current Bowman system withstand that timescale of delay?
In terms of technology, the current 50,000 Bowman radios cannot realistically provide the capability required for the 21st Century battlefield and in terms of hardware it is likely that some spares are already unavailable and sourcing spares will become increasingly difficult and prohibitively expensive.
On the plus side, as the British Army has shrunk by several thousands since the implementation of Bowman, there are surplus Bowman radios which can be cannibalised to keep the fleet operational.
Replacement of the SCOT And Reacher Terminals
To enable seamless satcom between networks, under the Enduring Capability (EC) contract, the MoD is replacing the existing maritime SCOT and land Reacher Skynet terminals with new and advanced open architecture terminals which can accommodate both civil and military twin bandwidths. The next stage, as with the mobile phone network, will be to give these terminals the ability to roam across networks to ensure fast and uninterrupted connectivity across different providers whether they be commercial or military. The provision of advanced crypto which can operate across multiple civil and military networks is also a key component. The key is to get the right mix between hardened satcom, sovereign satcom and commercial satcom.
Major General (Retd.) Bill Robins of Viasat, asked the panel whether with this raft of Programmes that the MoD can reassure industry that the architecture being looked at is coherent so there are no data collision issues.
The speaker replied that a secure coherent Digital Backbone, bringing together the architectural standards, is part of the technology required to ensure that there are no data collisions and/or transmission issues or bottlenecks. The MoD is not encouraging companies to come up with their own solutions for an end-to-end architecture right across X, Ka and Ku bands. As well as a Digital Backbone, the MoD is also developing a multi-domain Combat Cloud. The MoD will have agree the architecture and standards in advance of finalising the system.
The development of a coherent training programme is key to the success of Skynet 6. This was one issue encountered with the Bowman Programme where the Army could not train soldiers on the new Bowman radio system because no training doctrine had been developed prior to fielding of the system.
The MoD put a brave face on the whole issue of the UK’s overarching multi-domain systems including Morpheus and Skynet 6 and associated BVLOS systems being on track to replace the ageing Skynet 5 and Bowman systems, but looking behind the papers, there is clearly a concern that Brexit, COVID-19, semiconductor shortages and supply chain issues, along with the requirements to meet new threats is putting a strain on the MoD’s ability to deliver these programmes on time and within the budget. The fact that the UK is now excluded from the Galileo Project is one example of how Brexit has stalled international space projects. The exclusion of the UK is no doubt because not only is the UK excluded from sensitive EU technology programmes but also that as we are outside the EU, we have become a potential target in the event of conflict!
Barry Austin said that the current timescale has been challenging over the last 18 months due to Brexit, Covid, the lack of ability meet in person and other issues. No doubt this will cause some slippage of the programme but the MoD hopes to define a UK Defence Space Strategy by the end of the year.