LONDON — Faced with a possible delay in the delivery of a key communications satellite, the British Ministry of Defence and contractor Airbus Defence and Space are working on a deal to purchase long-lead items ahead of a full contract signature. The effort was revealed by the ministry’s top civil servant in a report release Oct. 24 on the progress of the Skynet 6 program.
With the existing Skynet 5 network aging, Britain wants the satellite in service to ensure its space communications capabilities are not compromised ahead of a new generation of spacecraft expected to start entering service in 2028.
But the document, known as an accounting officer assessment and written by Stephen Lovegrove, the MoD’s permanent secretary, said the delivery timescale on the Skynet 6A satellite is at risk without contracting early for some long-lead items.
“The reason for raising this accounting officer assessment is to highlight the level of risk against achieving the demanding schedule for the delivery of Skynet 6A with a planning assumption for service entry of the second quarter of 2025,” Lovegrove said in a letter to the chair of the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee.
“The MoD is working hard with ADS [Airbus Defence and Space] to address the risk to service entry: in the first instance, we are planning to place an early contract with ADS for long lead items; this early contract is termed Phase 1, which would place the program in a position to mitigate an initial series of risks to the schedule and provide opportunities for further risk mitigation in Phase 2," the assessment read.
No details have been released on what long-lead items are involved in the first phase.
Lovegrove said that for the moment, Skynet 6A remains within its scheduled timeline.
Airbus was named the preferred bidder to build a single communications satellite in 2017, but delays to getting the deal over the line has seen the contract split into two phases.
Phase 1 of the deal is expected to be signed by early 2020, and the business case for a full contract, including Phase 2, is to be presented to the MoD’s Investment Approvals Committee by March 2020.
Controversially, the spacecraft was selected by the MoD without a competition. Airbus supplies the Skynet 4 and 5 satellite systems used by the British military.
Richard Franklin, the head of secure communications at Airbus D&S, said the company is confident it will hit the 2025 target. “The approval for the contract we are targeting with MoD will be early 2020, and we are confident of meeting the schedule timescale of 2025 in service,” he said.
The Airbus executive said the Skynet 6A negotiations took longer than expected. In part that’s because of the need to get a deal through the government’s Single Source Regulation Office, or SSRO.
“It has taken longer to go through the single-source negotiations, documentation and approvals process than the customer had hoped for. We at Airbus are ensuring that in the meantime we can maintain and commit to that schedule,” Franklin said.
Lovegrove also referenced the impact of the SSRO on the negotiations, particularly on the value-for-money aspects of the deal.
“In the case of Skynet 6A, scrutiny under the single-source contract regulations is more rigorous, with value-for-money assurance achieved through a detailed examination of the Airbus cost model for the proposed work,” Lovegrove’s letter read.
Skynet 6A is the first element of a major update of British military space communications capabilities in four principle areas.
A competition to operate the ground-control segment of Skynet 6 — or whatever it ends up being called — is expected to get underway with the release to industry of what is known as a prequalification questionnaire.
Called the “service delivery wrap,” it’s a support contract for management services to control the Skynet constellation, extend the life of key ground infrastructure and manage satellite communication services.
Airbus D&S currently operates the ground segment of the Skynet program under a long-term private finance initiative deal scheduled to end in 2022.
A Skynet 6 “enduring capability” will encompass the future types of platforms to be acquired by Britain to provide beyond-line-of-sight communications. It will involve provision and operation of both satellites and ground infrastructure to deliver satellite communication services on an enduring basis.
A fourth element will involve secure telemetry, tracking and command, providing assured sovereign control, and the management of satellites and their payloads.
The MoD said it is “preparing to place contracts for the next stages of all four projects, all of which currently remain within their scheduled timelines.”