WASHINGTON — Britain’s military on July 19 agreed to fully fund a gap-filler Skynet satellite it sole-sourced from Airbus Defence and Space three years ago, signing a 500-million-pound ($628.5 million) contract that covers the satellite’s manufacture and launch, as well as ground segment upgrades.
Airbus Defence and Space will build the Skynet-6A satellite in the United Kingdom and arrange a 2025 launch. RAL Space, a U.K. national laboratory, will test the all-electric satellite at its facility in Harwell. Skynet-6A, based on the Eurostar Neo platform, is expected to provide communications services for the British military until at least 2040.
“To safeguard our military on operations around the world we need to ensure that we protect their communications on land, sea or in air,” U.K. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said in a news release. “The newest contested frontier is space and so we need to provide resilience and better communications for our forces.”
The U.K. has yet to decide on a successor to its Skynet-5 network, which consists of four X-band and Ultra-High-Frequency geostationary satellites. Airbus manages the Skynet-5 network, but its contract expires in 2022.
Britain’s Ministry of Defence has been evaluating new technologies such as very high throughput satellites and low-Earth-orbit megaconstellations as it prepares an architecture for Skynet-6.
Those evaluations will now likely consider what role OneWeb could play, now that the U.K. government, through its Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, is co-acquiring the megaconstellation startup with Indian telecommunications company Bharti Global.
“In our view, it now appears likely that OneWeb will be incorporated into Skynet in some fashion,” Louie DiPalma, a financial analyst at William Blair, wrote to clients in a July 16 research note.
DiPalma notes that four teams are bidding for “billions of pounds of service contracts” related to Skynet-6. The U.K. Ministry of Defence is currently competing the Skynet “Service Delivery Wrap” program, which covers satellite operations and service delivery, including the provision of ground stations and other communications equipment.
Airbus, as the incumbent, said June 16 it formed a team with KBR, Leidos, Northrop Grumman and QinetiQ to “deliver future space solutions for UK including the Skynet Service Delivery Wrap.”
Viasat’s U.K. division has formed a team with NSSLGlobal and led by British Telecom to bid for the contract.
British satellite operator Inmarsat has partnered with Serco, Lockheed Martin UK, and CGI UK. And British defense engineering company Babcock Integrated Technology bid for the contract, but has not disclosed a team.
DiPalma wrote that “Airbus’s involvement in OneWeb may increase its odds of renewing the contract,” since Airbus and OneWeb have the joint venture OneWeb Satellites that is tasked with building the OneWeb megaconstellation.