LONDON — A competition to run the ground elements of a new British military satellite communications network reaches its first major milestone Dec. 20 with interested bidders due to return a request for information from the Ministry of Defence.

Information on just who has responded to the MoD’s pre-qualification questionnaire is scarce following the department’s decision to impose a nondisclosure agreement on bidders for the ground station element of the Skynet 6 satellite communications program. The program aims to boost British capabilities in the sector out to 2040 and beyond.

The ministry clamped down on bidders publicly declaring an interest in the program but only after clearing Serco to publicly name its team on Nov. 5, the day the pre-qualification questionnaire was released.

Nobody is saying quite why the change of mind happened but a screwup seems to be the most likely explanation.

British-based services company Serco announced it was teaming with Lockheed Martin, IT specialist CGI and satellite operator Inmarsat to bid for what is known as the Service Delivery Wrap portion of Skynet 6.

The names of other contenders are a matter of speculation for the moment but Airbus Defence & Space, BT, US satellite and communications specialist Viasat and a Babcock partnership with Boeing are expected to be among the major contenders for the deal.

Of the companies in question, only Boeing confirmed that it was participating in the race. Serco declined to provide any more details than were included in their press announcement.

The MoD is expected to name up to four contenders to be issued with an invitation to negotiate by early spring next year.

This is, of course, subject to any changes imposed by the new Conservative government’s upcoming defense review, which among other things is focusing heavily on the MoD’s procurement record.

With military space figuring positively in the Conservative manifesto, some issue experts think the sector will be largely immune from cuts, though not everyone agrees.

The MoD announced it was to go ahead with the Service Delivery Wrap contest at the DSEI exhibition in London in September.

Speaking at the show, Julian Knight, head of networks at the MoD’s Information Systems and Services organisation (ISS) said, “This competition is a significant opportunity for industry to work at the very heart of our program – delivering improved flight and ground operations.”

“We are seeking an innovative partner that will ensure effective and consistent defense satellite communications and will look to continually maximize performance and value for money,” said Knight.

Airbus is the current incumbent ground station operator, having run the capability as part of a long-running Skynet 5 satellite private finance initiative providing beyond line of sight communications for the British military.

Serco already supplies many of the personnel running the Skynet 5 ground stations under a contract to Airbus.

The ground station element of Skynet 5 comes to an end on Aug. 31, 2022. The winner of the Service Delivery Wrap contest is scheduled to commence work in 2021, starting with a one-year transition phase.

With an overall program value in the vicinity of £6 billion, Skynet 6 is a key part of a rapidly growing interest in military space by the armed forces and the new Conservative government.

The MoD and Airbus have been in protracted negotiations over the supply of a single satellite known as Skynet 6A to provide assured capacity to the British military as the Skynet 5 spacecraft start to age.

But faced with the possible delay in the delivery of the satellite, the MoD’s top civil servant, Stephen Lovegrove, revealed in late October that to keep the program on track the two sides were working on a deal to purchase long-lead items ahead of a full contract signature. Those discussions continue.

Britain wants the satellite in service by 2025 to bridge any capability gap ahead of a new generation of spacecraft expected to start entering service in 2028 as part of the Skynet 6 program, known as Enduring Capability.

That component will determine future system architectures, followed by provision and operation of satellites and ground infrastructure starting around 2028.

The Enduring Capability requirement is expected to start moving forward soon and will likely attract the attention of suppliers like Airbus, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Viasat. All the US companies are growing their space presence in the U.K.