UK MoD still undecided on how to procure satellite communications

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The U.K. military satcom program Skynet-6, according to one official, is suffering from “paralysis by analysis.”

LONDON — The U.K. Ministry of Defence is inviting satellite industry executives for a briefing Friday on the military’s largest space program known as Skynet-6.

The meeting is taking place amid growing uncertainly about the future of Skynet 6 — an estimated $8 billion effort to modernize the satellite constellation that provides telecommunications for the U.K. military. According to one U.K. official, the project is suffering from “paralysis by analysis.”

The satellite industry is hoping to get more clarity this week on where the MoD is going with Skynet 6, but government officials speaking on Tuesday at the 2018 Global MilSatcom conference warned that there is a long road ahead.

Airbus built four Skynet 5 spacecraft that were launched between 2007 and 2012 as part of $4.7 billion outsourcing deal known as “private finance initiative” with the MoD that covered the procurement and operation of satellites and ground stations. The MoD announced in the summer of 2017 that it would award Airbus a sole-source contract for one Skynet-6A geostationary communications satellite. It also indicated it plans to end the outsourcing agreement with Airbus. But officials are still wrestling with what to do after the contract expires in 2022. Top companies in the satcom industry have called on the MoD to open up the work to new competitors.

The MoD said in a statement that it is “considering options for maintaining the continuity of Skynet services beyond 31 August 2022 when the Skynet 5 private finance initiative comes to an end.”

Julian Knight, head of the MoD’s networks delivery team, said the project is at a “crossroads” for several reasons. One is the government’s reluctance to commit to a single vendor and create a monopoly. The flip side is that it is not sure how to go about competing the work. Another issue is determining the mix of government-owned Skynet satellites and possibly commercial broadband services that would be combined into an interoperable network. Also slowing down decisions are concerns that the MoD does not have enough in-house procurement expertise to handle such a complex and expensive effort.

“We are trying to determine the route to the promised land,” Knight said.

Adding to the list of complicating factors is that space has been designated a war fighting domain, which means that the MoD has to ensure its satcom architecture is resilient and secure, and that services are not disrupted in the transition to new management. “We need a seamless transition from the current Skynet-5 contract and continued delivery,” Knight said. This is a tough problem for an MoD that has experienced a brain drain of experienced acquisition staff.

The latest twist in the Skynet strategy is that the MoD is expected to support a national effort to nurture a domestic space industry. “We have to contribute to the U.K. prosperity agenda,” Knight said.

Many questions have yet to be answered, and Knight listed a few: How do we acquire Skynet 6? How do we fit in with wider government aims and the national space policy? How do we work with the U.K. Space Agency? Do we do a single program with a single industrial team? Or different programs with two industry groupings? Or should we leave it up to industry to decide?

Knight said the MoD is studying these issues in great detail and might be willing to propose unconventional approaches such as “gain-share” or “pain-share” partnerships with companies. “I have to go through a number of hoops to deviate from a traditional position of open competition.”

The decision announced last year to award Airbus a contract for one satellite, Skynet 6A, is not being reversed, Knight said. “6A is still a single source.” But the contract won’t be actually signed until mid to late 2019 because of bureaucratic delays. There is an internal pricing review underway to ensure the deal complies with the MoD’s single source regulations and with procurement laws.

Barry Austin, Skynet 6 project manager, said the MoD wants a flexible program structure so it can plug in the latest satcom technologies without risking service continuity. The space segment would be “completely agnostic to the ground segment” so terminals can be updated without disrupting service, said Austin. He acknowledged that the procurement culture will have to change to accommodate different models.

Michael O’Callaghan, space program manager at the MoD’s defense science and technology laboratory, said his agency is focusing investments on Skynet 6 requirements and is trying to attract fresh talent. The lab also is experimenting with  technologies to protect satellites such as anti-jam software.

The U.K. Space Agency will help the MoD scope the market and identify useful technologies, said Mike Rudd, head of telecommunications strategy at the U.K. Space Agency.

“We see a meshing of commercial and military networks,” he said. “We need interfaces and open standards.” Despite cultural differences between his agency and  the MoD, said Rudd, “we are starting to work a lot closer, we are working to understand the requirements at the field level.”

Capt. David Moody, head of satcom at the MoD, said the vision for Skynet 6 is a “system of systems” that combines sovereign, allied and commercial satellites. The MoD already has signed on as a user of U.S. military constellations like the Advanced Extremely High Frequency and the Wideband Global Satcom systems. Negotiations are under way to become a partner of the Mobile User Objective System, or MUOS.

He said there are seven Skynet spacecraft in orbit. “We don’t expect to replace all of them.”

Skynet 6 has suffered from “paralysis by analysis” due to the U.K. “waterfall” acquisition process that requires numerous reviews and studies. said Moody. For this project to move forward, “I suspect a new approach will be required.”