LONDON – Four international consortia have been shortlisted by Britain’s Ministry of Defence to enter the final stage of bidding to operate ground control facilities for its Skynet satellite communications network.

Teams led by Airbus Defence & Space, Babcock Integrated Technology, BT and Serco, have been down-selected for the Skynet 6 Service Delivery Wrap program following the MoD’s Defence Digital organization release of an invitation to tender document to the remaining contenders June 12.

The make-up of one of the teams vying for the ground station operations contract is already known, while others have yet to announce who their partners are.

Serco has declared its team will involve satellite operator Inmarsat, IT specialist CGI UK and the U.K. arm of defense giant Lockheed Martin.

British communications company BT, Babcock and Airbus are all keeping their teaming arrangements under wraps for the time being.

Airbus, Britain’s biggest satellite builder, did though coincide the MoD Skynet 6 down-select with a separate space partnering announcement of its own.

The company said June 16 it had teamed with KBR, Leidos UK, Northrop Grumman and QinetiQ to launch a new space initiative known as Open Innovation-Space aimed at increasing British involvement in future satellite communications efforts.

No mention was made by Airbus of the Skynet 6 program.

All the companies are working under strict Skynet 6 non-disclosure agreements with the MoD which forbid communication with the media and others.

The ground station program is the second part of the MoD’s wider Skynet 6 project to equip the military and government with a new generation of beyond-line-of-sight communications capabilities starting around 2028.

The Skynet 6 program has already seen Airbus start work on a new satellite, called Skynet 6A, to act as a capability gap filler between 2025 and the introduction of the follow-on, new-generation capacity.

A deal for preliminary design work and long-lead time manufacture was signed by Airbus and the MoD in March and the contract to build the Skynet 6A spacecraft is in the final stages of government approval and expected to be announced within weeks.

The other two key parts of a program presently expected to cost in total around £6 billion ($7.6 billion) are the Enduring Capability project, to provide next generation communications capabilities, and the Secure Telemetry, Tracking and Command (STTC) project for providing assured sovereign control and management of satellites.

The MoD has settled its STTC requirements for SkyNet 6A but its options for the longer term remain open.

Work on defining what the Enduring Capability requirement might look like has been underway for a while and industry executives here expect the effort to be ramped up in the coming months with the first tranche of recommendations due to be presented to the MoD early next year, said people with knowledge of the program.

The next-generation communications requirement is planned to get underway next year with the release by MoD of a pre-qualification questionnaire.

One industry executive, who asked not to be named, said securing the Service Delivery Wrap deal was an important stepping stone towards satellite builders securing the big prize – the Enduring Capability requirement.

“It will help the winning consortium secure local skills in the sector, help in understanding the customers communications requirements and assist in filling in the revenue gaps between what is often sporadic investment in satellites and payloads,” the executive said.

Space is an industrial and military priority for the British, and while it remains unclear how the worsening economic picture here might impact defense spending it is hoped the sector ,and programs like SkyNet 6 and the Galileo global navigation satellite system replacement project, might escape the worst of the expected cuts.

One cost cutting option the British are reckoned to have been looking at is to use future SkyNet 6 spacecraft to double up its use by carrying a GNSS capability as well.

Skynet ground facilities are currently operated by Airbus as part of a wider private finance initiative (PFI) deal signed in 2003 to build, own and operate a constellation of communication satellites and associated capabilities on behalf of the British military.

That deal expires Aug 2022. The winning Service Delivery Wrap contender is slated to take over ground operations from that point after a transition phase.

In a contract note issued June 16 the MoD said the return date of the invitation to tender is set for June next year.

The Service Delivery Wrap arrangement runs for five years, not including any transition phase, with two single-year extension options also expected to be included in the deal.

The terms of the existing PFI arrangement entail the MoD paying a nominal fee of a Pound in exchange for which it will take ownership of hundreds of millions of Pounds worth of assets in the shape of ground infrastructure and the Skynet 4 and 5 satellite fleets currently operated by Airbus.

This time around the MoD wants to retain overall ownership of the capability in order to help grow its space skills and management experience by way of owning the ground station assets with the winning consortium working under a straightforward service provision deal.

Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.

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