LONDON — The first element of a new British military satellite communications capability to replace the current Skynet 5 network has been awarded to Airbus Defence and Space without a competition.
Negotiations to complete the deal to supply the Skynet 6A satellite are ongoing, but the British Ministry of Defence said it opted for the noncompetitive route with Airbus, in part, to maintain domestic space capabilities.
“The MoD intends to award Airbus Defence and Space the single source contract for the manufacture, assembly, integration, test and launch of a Skynet 6A geostationary military communications satellite. This will secure delivery of a sovereign and secure capability for the U.K.,” said a department spokesman.
The ability of Airbus to meet the required delivery timeline for Skynet 6A also influenced the decision, said officials here.
The new spacecraft is being acquired to fill a potential capacity gap as early satellites in the U.K. military’s Skynet 5 constellation approach the end of their useful lives ahead of a new generation of communications capabilities becoming available around the end of the next decade.
The new satellite is expected to be operational by mid-2025.
A spokesman for Airbus in the U.K. said the company is “not going to comment on the award at this stage.”
Airbus is the incumbent supplier of satellites to the British military, having built four Skynet 5 spacecraft that were launched between 2007 and 2012 as part of a 20 year, £3.6 billion (U.S. $4.7 billion) private finance initiative, or PFI, with the British MoD to acquire and operate the platforms and ground stations.
The PFI deal, which has been extended, is due to expire in 2022 when the satellites and ground infrastructure are handed over to the MoD by Airbus in exchange for a pound.
The Skynet 6 program is packaged into three elements: the stopgap spacecraft to be built by Airbus, a service delivery package to manage ground operations from 2022 and an enduring capability program to provide future communication system capacity beyond the end of the next decade.
In an effort to fend off expected criticism from satellite builders denied a chance to secure a toehold in Britain’s growing space business, MoD officials said that the default position on the two future, and larger, parts of the Skynet 6 program would be competitive.
A third, smaller competition to appoint an acquisition partner to act as the customer’s friend in the Skynet 6 procurement is also expected to move forward in the near future.
Officials said they expect a competition to appoint a new service delivery partner to take over the running of the ground operations from 2022. The enduring capability is also in line to be competed as things stand.
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.
Other innovative and cheaper systems, like the Airbus 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.
Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Thales Alenia Space have been lobbying hard to challenge the dominance of Airbus here, and all three companies were pitching for a competition on Skynet 6A.
The three companies, along with Airbus, responded to an MoD capability questionnaire last year, and British officials have visited satellite facilities in the U.S. and Europe to assess security, the ability to meet sovereignty and U.K. industrial base requirements as well as other issues ahead of making the decision in favor of Airbus.
Airbus is Britain’s largest satellite systems supplier, but foreign rivals, particularly Lockheed Martin, have set their sights on securing a larger part of a fast-growing space business here.
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.