16 Jun 20. Defense News reported yesterday that four international consortia have been shortlisted by the UK MoD to enter the final stage of bidding to operate ground control facilities for its Skynet satellite communications network.
Teams led by Airbus Defence & Space, Babcock Integrated Technology, BT and Serco, have been 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 June 12.
The make-up of one of the teams vying for the ground station operations contract is already known, while others have yet to announce who their partners are.
Serco has declared its team will involve satellite operator Inmarsat, IT specialist CGI UK and the U.K. arm of defense giant Lockheed Martin.
British communications company BT, Babcock and Airbus are all keeping their teaming arrangements under wraps for the time being.
Airbus, Britain’s biggest satellite builder, did though coincide the MoD Skynet 6 down-select with a separate space partnering announcement of its own.
The company said June 16 it had teamed with KBR, Leidos UK, Northrop Grumman and QinetiQ to launch a new space initiative known as Open Innovation-Space aimed at increasing British involvement in future satellite communications efforts.
The consortium, comprising the UK leader in space and sovereign military satellite communication services, and leading defence companies in their fields, have extensive experience in mission critical communication services and associated space, ground and management segments. With proven track records of modernising defence services, the consortium partners already engage with many SMEs to serve government and commercial customers. Open Innovation – Space will look to significantly raise this SME engagement to accelerate regional recovery by broadening potential investment in novel solutions and ideas. Companies from across the UK are being encouraged to participate with a dedicated portal at www.openinnovationspace.uk to engage with the team.
Richard Franklin, Managing Director, Airbus Defence and Space UK said: “The space industry will play an increasingly important and visible role in the economic recovery of Britain, underpinning not only critical national infrastructure but also day to day services such as weather forecasting and satellite navigation. As space services and applications continue to expand and touch everyone’s lives even more, we are calling on SMEs to engage with us further to see how we can bring greater innovation and new ways of thinking in future satcom services to grow the UK’s space capability and industrial expertise.”
The consortium partners have been at the heart of the UK’s defence and space sector for more than 50 years having developed leading edge design, manufacturing, systems and service capabilities across the entire space domain.
Airbus in the UK is recognised as a global leader in the design and manufacture of advanced telecommunications satellites and is a trusted prime contractor for some of the most complex space science and exploration missions in the world. Airbus provides a range of space-based services to customers worldwide including the support of the UK Armed Forces, and its NATO Allies, by delivering and operating the Skynet military communications system, providing 24/7 services across the world for more than 15 years.
The consortium partners include leaders in modernising defence information technology systems as well as trusted providers of research, technology advice, products and mission rehearsal services. With proven capabilities to enable interoperability with allies, including the US, NATO, Five Eyes etc, the consortium share a vision of the future and a commitment to grow the UK’s industrial footprint through SME engagement.
BATTLESPACE Comment: This is a positive announcement to bring more SME’s into space and would appear that Airbus is positioning itself to use more SMEs in its Skynet 6 bids whereas previously it had preferred to take the work in house at the expense of SMEs. The sheer size of Airbus and its bidding and accounting structures has meant that where a nimble approach to providing satcom services for urgent operations overseas, Airbus is believed to have been found wanting in the speed it is quoting for these urgent ops plus the price quoted against smaller specialist satcom SMEs.
All the companies are working under strict Skynet 6 non-disclosure agreements with the MoD which forbid communication with the media and others.
The ground station program is the second part of the MoD’s wider Skynet 6 project to equip the military and government with a new generation of beyond-line-of-sight communications capabilities starting around 2028.
The Skynet 6 program has already seen Airbus start work on a new satellite, called Skynet 6A, to act as a capability gap filler between 2025 and the introduction of the follow-on, new-generation capacity.
A deal for preliminary design work and long-lead time manufacture was signed by Airbus and the MoD in March and the contract to build the Skynet 6A spacecraft is in the final stages of government approval and expected to be announced within weeks.
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.
The MoD has settled its STTC requirements for SkyNet 6A but its options for the longer term remain open.
Work on defining what the Enduring Capability requirement might look like has been underway for a while and industry executives here expect the effort to be ramped up in the coming months with the first tranche of recommendations due to be presented to the MoD early next year, said people with knowledge of the program.
Companies gear up for next phase in Britain’s Skynet 6 program
The British government has ruled that all bidders, except one, must remain unnamed.
The next-generation communications requirement is planned to get underway next year with the release by MoD of a pre-qualification questionnaire.
One industry executive, who asked not to be named, said securing the Service Delivery Wrap deal was an important stepping stone towards satellite builders securing the big prize – the Enduring Capability requirement.
“It will help the winning consortium secure local skills in the sector, help in understanding the customers communications requirements and assist in filling in the revenue gaps between what is often sporadic investment in satellites and payloads,” the executive said.
Space is an industrial and military priority for the British, and while it remains unclear how the worsening economic picture here might impact defense spending it is hoped the sector, and programs like SkyNet 6 and the Galileo global navigation satellite system replacement project, might escape the worst of the expected cuts.
One cost cutting option the British are reckoned to have been looking at is to use future SkyNet 6 spacecraft to double up its use by carrying a GNSS capability as well.
Skynet ground facilities are currently operated by Airbus as part of a wider private finance initiative (PFI) deal signed in 2003 to build, own and operate a constellation of communication satellites and associated capabilities on behalf of the British military.
That deal expires Aug 2022. The winning Service Delivery Wrap contender is slated to take over ground operations from that point after a transition phase.
In a contract note issued June 16 the MoD said the return date of the invitation to tender is set for June next year.
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.
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.
BATTLESPACE Comment: Specialist sources close to BATTLESPACE suggest that the MoD is looking for a wider mix of comms capabilities for the BVLOS requirement which includes Skynet 6. The MoD is believed to be looking at industry to provide a greater part of the satcoms requirement through leasing capabilities from existing constellations provided by such companies as Viasat and Inmarsat. This will give the MoD greater flexibility to provide coverage during overseas expeditionary deployments and larger coverage of the operations area. There will also be a larger mix of comms solutions from VHF and HF radios thru Link 16 and satcom.
For the satellites themselves, the MoD has recognised that it made a mistake in the Skynet 5 project with freezing the satellite design at the start of the program, thus freezing new technology inserts. This time the MoD has contracted Airbus for one bird Skynet 6a. The next birds will be bought incrementally with technology inserts along the way.