LONDON — The British Ministry of Defence's much anticipated Skynet 6 satellite program has found itself in need of additional skills and manpower to map out requirements and manage an overall program that could be worth up to £6 billion, or $7.5 billion.
One downside of a 20-year private finance initiative deal with Airbus for the Skynet 5 is that satellite communications know-how and resources in the MoD have pretty much atrophied, according to several executives here.
The Information Systems Services arm of the MoD responsible for Skynet 6 has been making strenuous efforts to rectify the shortcomings, but recruitment of skilled personnel continues to be a big problem, said industry executives. It's a challenge as the MoD closes in on a decision to either buy a new military communications satellite from incumbent supplier Airbus Defence and Space or open the requirement up to competition.
"Whatever it [the MoD] does, it will need somebody to help write the requirement and put together the procurement program.
I think they are struggling to be able to put together the right program to buy one satellite, let alone lots of them. It’s a resource issue up to a point. They have the money approved; what they just don’t seem to be able to do is find a mechanism to get the right people," said one executive.
The Skynet 6 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.
To help move the program forward, the MoD has started parceling out a number of small technical studies under an arrangement known as the Framework Agreement for Technical Support, or FATS.
Industry executives said there had been a divergence of views within the MoD about the need for an acquisition partner over the last few months which has held up progress in appointing a contractor, but they expect a competition to get underway soon.
However, the MoD delivery team said it is "waiting until the Skynet 6A acquisition approach is finalized before finalizing its position on the customer friend."
It may not be in the same league as building and operating satellites themselves, but a requirement for an acquisition partner would be a sizeable prize likely to attract a range of bidders as part of a consortium or a single prime.
Major consultancies like Atkins and PA Consulting, British-based satellite operator Inmarsat, technology company Qinetiq, and Vaeros — the U.K. arm of Aerospace Corporation — are the types of concerns likely to show interest.