Skynet 5 satellite Airbus
Skynet 5 satellite. Credit: Airbus

LONDON — The British Ministry of Defence will take ownership of all the Skynet military telecommunications satellites in 2022 at the end of the current long-term bandwidth supply contract with Astrium Services, British defense officials said Nov. 27.

The transfer, which one official said will occur without payment, concerns three large Skynet 5 satellites financed entirely by Astrium and launched between 2007 and 2008, and a fourth scheduled for launch in mid-December.

The transfer-of-title provision in the 2002 contract, which was not previously disclosed, is one way British military officials hope to maintain a competitive environment as they approach the time when the Astrium contract ends and is replaced with another arrangement — with Astrium or with someone else.

U.K. Royal Navy Cmdr. Andy Rayner, who since July 2010 has been the British Ministry of Defence’s manager for fixed and beyond-line-of-sight communications, said the Skynet 5 contract signed with Astrium that went into effect in 2003 has always included a provision for an end-of-contract transfer.

Astrium Services — formerly named Paradigm Secure Communications — purchased Britain’s aging Skynet 4 satellites for a symbolic amount in assuming the Skynet 5 contract.

The center of the contract was Astrium’s agreement to build at least two larger Skynet 5 satellites, launch and operate them and provide a fixed amount of bandwidth to British military forces.

The contract permitted Astrium to build extra X- and UHF-band capacity into the Skynet 5 satellites in order to sell it to allied governments. This it has done. Skynet 5A and Skynet 5B were launched in March and November 2007, respectively.

With demand for satellite bandwidth increasing beyond what was expected, Astrium launched a third Skynet 5 satellite, Skynet 5C, in June 2008.

Skynet 5D, which is nearly identical to the earlier models, is scheduled for launch in December as a co-passenger on a European Ariane 5 rocket.

Replacing Astrium as the British military’s partner in satellite communications would appear to be an uphill struggle. Astrium employees have been embedded with British deployed troops and sit side by side with uniformed British military officials in controlling and commanding the satellites.

Speaking during the Global Milsatcom conference here organized by SMi Group, Rayner said taking control of the Skynet 5 satellites, which were financed by Astrium, is one way to assure a serious competition when the contract ends.

Rayner and other British defense officials addressing the conference were unanimous in lauding the performance of the Skynet 5 contract, which is valued at 3.6 billion British pounds ($5.75 billion) through 2022.

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.