The British Defence Ministry is still investigating scenarios for its next-generation satellite telecommunications system, called Skynet 6. But one thing is clear: The ministry thinks it has lost too much in-house expertise in the way it handled the previous Skynet 5 Private Finance Initiative. Credit: UK Ministry of Defence.
LONDON — The British Defence Ministry is preparing to return to a conventional procurement of military satellite telecommunications capacity after concluding that outsourcing has emptied the Defence Ministry of its own expertise.
More than 14 years after embarking on the biggest military satellite privatization ever — the $5.4-billion Skynet 5 Private Finance Initiative, which British defense officials repeatedly labeled an unqualified success — the ministry finds itself without the technical personnel needed to handle a fresh procurement.
The ministry has already signaled it will purchase, from Skynet 5 contractor Airbus Defense and Space, a Skynet 6A satellite to fill the gap between the current Skynet 5 system and Skynet 6, whose architecture has yet to be determined.
But Airbus and others likely to include Lockheed Martin and satellite fleet operator Inmarsat will compete to be the defense ministry’s industrial helpmate in the transition from Skynet 5 to Skynet 6’s ultimate procurement.
Skynet 5 outsourcing allowed MoD skillset to atrophy
“I am not going to talk to you about Skynet 5 in detail today because as SRO [senior responsible owner] for Skynet 6, Skynet 5 is history,” said Nick Hay, SRO for Future Beyond Line of Sight Program at Britain’s Defense Ministry. “But that history matters. We have learned, and continue to learn, many valuable lessons from it.
“One of the legacies of the Skynet 5 is that we in the MoD have lost many of the key skills and experience, and some of the understanding, necessary to acquire and operate satellites at all levels of defense. This is a significant challenge for us today in the program as we go forward.”
Hay said the British government has earmarked about 6 billion British pounds ($7.85 billion) for the future Skynet system through 2040. That figure includes the transition from the current Airbus-managed service to the procurement of the Skynet 6A satellite and the Skynet 6 constellation of satellites later on.
In a presentation here Nov. 7 at the Global MilsatCom conference, Hay made clear that the British government wanted to rebuild its own military satcom expertise.
The loss of that expertise was a natural consequence of the Skynet 5 Private Finance Initiative, whose price — 3.66 billion British pounds over 19 years to August 2022 — included regular technology refresh supplied by Airbus. It now seems British government officials regret that they did not preserve their own satcom experts instead of leaving it all to Airbus.
At this point, the ministry is focused on a two-step process toward refilling its in-house expertise and procuring a next-generation system. The first is called a service-delivery period from August 2022 to the time of the full procurement of a Skynet 6 system.
“That will concern a huge variety of ground-based services including satellite operations, terminal provision, facilities management, logistics, training, all at the end of the PFI at the end of August 2022,” Hay said.
“Where we need to do a lot more conceptual thinking is the Skynet 6 enduring capability, which will succeed the service-delivery route and deliver future technologies.”
Aside from assigning a provisional budget to it, the ministry has left open a range of possibilities for Skynet 6. Hay said it should have a broader geographic coverage than today’s Skynet 5, notably in the Arctic region, but that the extended coverage could come from non-UK government assets.
Skynet 6: broader geographic coverage, but perhaps not all with government satellites
“Our global appetite will require the program to consider coverage well beyond the current Skynet 5 footprint, although this does not automatically mean that this will be delivered by sovereign, assured UK assets,” Hay said, adding that orbital-slot reservation and broadcast-frequency concerns will have a large role in the Skynet 6 program.
“Our spectrum requirements also need to be considered in detail as space becomes more congested,” he said. “Our ability to guard, internationally, against spectrum fratricide remains an international issue and must be at the forefront of our thinking and engagement.”
Hay also said hosted payloads would be given a hearing as the Skynet 6 system design is filled out. Just as a multirole military aircraft is now common, he said a satellite performing both telecommunications, ballistic missile defense and space situational awareness functions may be a way forward.
The ministry is also determined to take the measure of high-throughput commercial satellites and mega-constellations of broadband satellites in low Earth orbit as it works through the Skynet 6 design.
But time and again, Hay returned to the concern that the British government no longer would accept being a technology student in the class of the industry master.
The first priority among the Skynet 6 challenges, he said, “is SQEP: Suitably qualified, experienced personnel. The recruitment of sufficient MoD personnel with suitable qualifications and experience has been a significant issue.
“Our skills will be further supported by the onboarding of an acquisition partner early in 2018. That is critical to raising the MoD’s ability to act as both a focal point for you to engage — but critically for us, as an intelligent customer as we go forward.
“In the short term, in MoD we are required to continue to purchase the skills to assist us in this development. But in the long term, and relating to the emerging MoD space strategy, our vision should see an unbroken path from school education, through academic study and vocational training to career continuity in both the public and private sectors. Growing specialist skills in space is a critical enabler. The anticipated growth in the UK space sector is critical to widening the talent pool in the UK upon which we can draw in the future.
“Are you willing to consider letting your staff work for us?” Hay asked British industry.