LONDON — The British Ministry of Defence is close to a decision on whether the country buys a new military communications satellite from incumbent supplier Airbus Defence and Space or opens the requirement up to competition, according to executives familiar with the program.
MoD officials at Joint Forces Command responsible for Britain's military satellite communications capability have been prevaricating over whether to go single source and buy the spacecraft, known as Skynet 6A, from Airbus or throw the procurement open to rival bids from Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Thales Alenia Space.
While the MoD has remained rather mum, several industry executives reckon there could be a decision within a week or two, although they say it's unclear what impact the Conservative government's decision to hold a snap general election on June 8 may have on the timing of any announcement.
Shaping UK military space industry
By itself, a one-satellite requirement is no big deal, but where the contract ends up could have implications for the future industrial base and military space procurement options here.
All four satellite companies responded to an MoD questionnaire last year, and British officials have visited company satellite facilities in the U.S. and Europe to assess security, the ability to meet sovereignty and U.K. industrial base requirements, and other issues ahead of making the decision.
The satellite is planned to fill a possible capacity gap as early satellites in the Skynet 5 constellation currently used by the military approach the end of their lives ahead of a new generation of communications capabilities becoming available toward the end of the next decade.
Four Skynet 5 satellites supply the British military with communications capacity as part of a ground-breaking private finance initiative deal in 2002, which saw Airbus provide the spacecraft, buy ground terminals and operate the ground stations in a 20-year, £3.6 billion (U.S. $4.5 billion) agreement with the MoD.
The first three satellites were launched in 2007 and 2008, and the final spacecraft — Skynet 5D — was launched at the end of 2012.
Up until last year, the satellite communications requirement was known as the future beyond line-of-sight, or FBLOS, program.
Now it has been renamed Skynet 6 and packaged into three elements: a stop-gap spacecraft, a service delivery package to manage ground operations and an enduring capability program to provide future communication system capacity beyond the end of the next decade.
All the packages will eventually be contracted by industry starting with the 6A satellite.
The service delivery element needs to be in place by 2022 when the Airbus private finance initiative deal expires and the Skynet 5 satellites and ground stations are handed back to the MoD for a pound.
"The current intention is that a service package will be required to be in place six to 12 months before the Skynet 5 PFI expires in August 2022," according to the MoD.
The final part of the Skynet 6 requirement will be the introduction of a future enduring communications capability, which will partly be provided by satellites; however, other innovative systems, like Airbus-built Zephyr solar powered unmanned aircraft, which fly on the edge of space, may also be in the mix.
The British military has already ordered three Zephyrs for evaluation.
The MoD didn't respond to a question about the timing for the introduction of an enduring capability beyond Skynet6A, but the expectation is that systems will start being rolled out around 2028 or 2029.
The competition dilemma
There have been dissenting voices in the MoD on which route to follow, according to one executive who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"Some thought there should be a competition, and some believed there was no credible competition [to Airbus] given the sovereignty requirements, be that based on issues like where the satellite is built, jobs in the U.K. or much more esoteric definitions of sovereignty, which allow you freedom to do what you want with the spacecraft once you have bought it," he said.
Richard Franklin, the head of the Airbus secure communications business, said the company was committed to support the MoD’s decision either way.
But, he reckons: "A single-source award would save substantial procurement costs for the MoD and support an earlier launch date if required."
Nik Smith, Lockheed Martin’s U.K. lead for military space, said his company would welcome the chance to demonstrate its capabilities.
"We think competition is the right way to move forward the capability and other value for money reasons," Smith said. "If the MoD believe[s] they have good justification to sole source Skynet 6A, we want to seek reassurance that the follow-on elements of the program will be competed. That’s important for a number of reasons from building industrial base through to delivering the right capability to the war fighter."