HTS, megaconstellations feed UK indecisiveness about Skynet 6 program

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Britain’s MoD worries Skynet 6 might be just a faster horse when others are driving Ferraris.

LONDON — The British military’s Skynet-6 satellite program faces a complicated procurement, but one of the holdups delaying the government’s ultimate decision is the same challenge commercial satellite operators face around the world.

Commercial satellite technology is developing so fast, Britain’s Ministry of Defense isn’t certain its next-generation program will keep pace with what the future holds.

“The Skynet 6 program was challenged by our own internal Ministry of Defence scientific adviser to ensure we are not just buying a faster horse, a cookie cutter of the Skynet 5 capability, when actually really what we need is something innovative and modern and more like a Ferrari,” Capt. David Moody, MoD’s head of satcom and Skynet 6 program director, said Nov. 6 at the 2018 Global MilSatcom conference here.

Commercial satellite operators around the world ordered just seven competed geostationary communications satellites last year — about a third of the historic average. This year is trending toward a similar total, as manufacturers blame the rapid evolution of high-throughput satellites and low Earth orbit megaconstellations for paralyzing their customers. Moody said Britain’s MoD has its eyes on the same technologies.

“MoD continues to monitor the contrasting approaches being adopted across industry and commercial sector, including technologies such as high-throughput satellites, high-capacity satellites, and the opportunity that is the low Earth-orbit megaconstellations,” he said.

The Skynet 6 program is being developed to meet the U.K.’s military communications needs from 2025 to 2040, succeeding the Skynet 5 program that Airbus Defence and Space runs through a public-private partnership. What Skynet 6 will look like remains to be determined, though Moody said it won’t be identical to the seven Skynet 5 satellites in orbit today.

Moody said the commercial sector’s contribution to Skynet 6 is “probably the area where there remains the greatest amount of work,” given the pace of technology development.

“It is the most rapidly evolving and changing” part of Skynet when contrasted with sovereign and allied capabilities, he said. Moody said using standard Ministry of Defense “waterfall” acquisition with time-intensive reviews and studies “may ultimately create a situation of paralysis by analysis.”

“I suspect another approach is going to be required,” he said.

“It’s those unknown unknowns,” said Michael O’Callaghan, space program manager at the U.K.’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. “How do we know what is going to be coming in the future? How are we looking to the horizon to understand what the user, what the military, is going to want in 20 years’ time?”

The current Skynet constellation consists of four Skynet 5 satellites and three older Skynet 4 satellites that cover most of the world except for a large swath of the Pacific Ocean. MoD has not decided on coverage for the Skynet 6 system.

Airbus Defence and Space is responsible for building one sole-sourced Skynet 6 satellite called Skynet 6A that is planned for launch in 2025. Richard Franklin, Airbus Defence and Space’s head of secure communications, said preliminary work on Skynet 6A has started despite the absence of a firm contract.

Julian Knight, head of the MoD’s networks delivery team, said the contract, first announced during the summer of 2017, should be finalized in mid-to-late 2019 after completion of an internal pricing review.

MoD plans to allow competition for subsequent Skynet 6 satellites among different manufacturers.