LONDON — Britain is expected in the next few weeks to take the first formal step toward building a new generation of space-based tactical communications for its armed forces. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is considering whether to approve the assessment phase of the Future Beyond Line of Sight (FBLOS) program to replace its current Skynet 5 system.

If the program's assessment phase is approved, the outcome could herald big changes to how Britain meets future demands for satellite and possibly near-space tactical communications systems.

The procurement arm of the MoD, the Defence Equipment and Support organization, is scheduled to submit a business case to MoD and Treasury officials later this month.

Included in the scheme are a possible early purchase of up to two satellites to bridge the gap between Skynet 5 and the use of any new capabilities that may come to fruition over the next decade.

During the assessment phase, the MoD will look at a range of technologies and service provision options, consider the benefits of greater international cooperation, and seek a balance between the use of civil and military satellite services by its military.

Industry executives here said one of the unintended consequences of a 20-year deal with Airbus is the MoD is now short on expertise and resources in the sector, and it's likely the ministry will appoint a contractor in a customers friend type of arrangement to help set requirements and undertake other tasks.

The MoD itself was reluctant to say much ahead of the business case submission.

"We continue to consider a range of options for the FBLOS project and aim to submit the initial business case this summer," was all an MoD spokeswoman would say on the subject.

The MoD will use the assessment to nail down how it intends to provide the communications service after the present deal with Airbus Defence and Space comes to an end in 2022.

Airbus was awarded a single, long-term contract in 2003 to supply and operate satellite, ground terminals and control rooms as a private finance initiative (PFI).

Now, the British look as though they will break up FBLOS into several separate competitions rather than award a single deal to one contractor.

PFIs have fallen out of favor with the Conservative government; while nothing can be ruled out, the MoD is saying it won't consider another PFI and it won't extend the Airbus deal.

Airbus, Boeing, Inmarsat, Lockheed Martin, Thales Alenia Space and Serco are among a host of the world's leading satellite builders and service providers likely to be interested in meeting all, or part, of the upcoming requirement.

Airbus was awarded a single, long-term contract in 2003 to supply and operate satellite, ground terminals and control rooms.

Photo Credit: Airbus

While there has been disquiet over some PFIs, the satellite communications (satcom) scheme has served the British military well during wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Despite some recent remarks from senior officers that the current arrangement is "suboptimal" for commercial and technical reasons, investigations by the National Audit Office — the government's spending watchdog — concluded the scheme provided value for money.

The arrangement with Europe's leading space company is set to conclude in August 2022 when, in exchange for £1, the contractor hands over to the MoD four Airbus-built Skynet 5 spacecraft along with ground terminal and control room hardware.

Airbus also will relinquish the service and support element of the deal, some of which is subcontracted out to Serco, after what will be a 20-year run providing British satcom capabilities.

The upcoming assessment, if approved, will consider how that service element should be replaced post 2022 and, by the back end of the 2020s, how Britain should satisfy fast-growing bandwidth requirements as its unmanned air vehicle fleets multiply, special forces operations increase and the Royal Navy's new F-35-equipped aircraft carriers become fully operational.

Shorter-term satellite capability issues are being addressing as well.

The likely launch of at least one gap-filler satellite is being looked at to guarantee capability requirements as some of the older spacecraft in Skynet 5 approach the end of their useful lives.

Competition for a new satellite likely will spark a fierce debate around sovereignty and the protection of local satellite industry capabilities as Airbus, the only significant satellite builder here, seeks to fend off US rivals and others from gaining a foothold.

The company is already warning that a deal awarded to foreign rivals could see Britain lose its spacecraft-building capabilities.

"Airbus has the No. 1 space capability in the UK, although others may promise to create capability here," said Richard Franklin, the head of secure communications at Airbus's UK arm. "If you want to create and maintain sovereignty for military satcom, you need an industry that is committed. We are still here having built military satellites 10-15 years ago. If someone comes to build just one or two next-generation satellites and does not have a continuing commercial exploitation of that market afterwards and therefore have that capability [available] for the next round of procurement, there would be a real risk the UK could lose its next-generation capability,"

Boeing and Lockheed Martin are both seeking to build UK space-based businesses of some kind or another, according to some executives based in Britain.

"In 2014, Lockheed Martin announced the opening of a space technology office in Harwell, Oxfordshire and we continue to work closely with the UK MoD to understand more about their requirements for future military communication satellites," a Lockheed Martin spokeswoman said.

In a statement, Boeing said it was able to provide a multitude of military satcom capabilities to meet customer needs: "Our heritage with US Wideband Global (WGS) system, hosted payloads, ground segments, and commercial systems gives us a wide scope of experience from which to draw upon."

Some executives here agree that whoever builds the satellites, executives here say, a gap filler is a smart move as it should give a breathing space to study whether potential technology breakthroughs could be part of FBLOS.

"The purpose of the gap-filler satellites is to preserve options for the future. The MoD view is they will not be able to take advantage of anything radical with the current project timelines. Approval of a gap filler allows them to study whether they should put things like [the solar-powered, high-altitude UAV] Zepyhr inside the requirement. They want to preserve every opportunity for being innovative," said Andrew Stanniland, the vice president of market development at satellite communications service provider Inmarsat Global Government.

Solar-powered UAVs operating on the edge of space, networks in the sky, constellations of cheap, low-orbit satellites and data transmission by laser rather than radio waves are some of the advances which could mature in the next decade.

The British have already purchased two Zephyr 8 UAVs from Airbus. A first flight is planned for 2017.

One of the roles to be explored is as a communications link, possibly for special forces.

Aside from the technology, the MoD will be using the assessment phase to look at how the procurement will work in the wake of the expected break up of the current Airbus-run scheme.

It's possible there will be separate competitions for the spacecraft, ground terminals and control rooms as well as finding a service provider to run the operational system. And, it could be split even further.

"They will almost certainly disassociate procurement of the big ticket capital expenditure items from the service provision. That may just be the satellites, but it could include the ground stations and perhaps the remote terminals. That is still to be determined, but they seem ready to buy the satellites and then give them to a third party service provider," Stanniland said.

"A year ago I would have said they will smash it into as many as 10 parcels, now I don't think that will happen, it will probably be less than a handful," he said. "As they look at their own capabilities and those of industry, they may come to a compromise on how many they can compete and manage."

With growing demand and the increasing complexity of capability and operations, Airbus is urging the MoD not to relinquish the expertise built up as a result of its Skynet 5 experience.

"We think the broad range of capability Airbus brings to Skynet 5 is unique, and we are not convinced that the complexity of the fully integrated end-to-end service is fully understood by all stakeholders yet. It's key for us as part of the assessment phase to help the customer understand that," Franklin said.

Executives here say Airbus' position as the incumbent end-to-end satellite provider for 20 years could provide a barrier to entry as the service supplier.

"A lot depends on what the MoD wants to do. If it's to continue in a similar vein to what they are doing now, why risk a change? But, if they want to do something different, then Airbus' advantage diminishes," one executive said.

Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.

More In Air