Government invests £500m in military comms satellite

Deal for Airbus technology follows £400m spent on acquiring OneWeb

Credit: Pixabay

The government has spent £500m on a military communications satellite it claims can be used by the Armed Forces “for generations to come”.

The Skynet 6A machine, built by Airbus Defence and Space, will be the basis for ground troops’ satellite communications for the next 20 years, the government said. 

It is the sixth generation of the Skynet system – the first version of which was developed back in the 1960s. The incoming technology will replace the Skynet 5 constellation of satellites, which have been in use for about 10 years.

According to the government, the new version “will use some of the most advanced technology available, including a higher radio frequency spectrum and the latest in digital processing to provide more capacity, speed and greater versatility than its predecessor system”.

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Skynet 6A is also intended to help the UK “deter threats from anywhere in the world, including Russia and China”.

The technology can be controlled from existing facilities on the ground.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said: “To safeguard our military on operations around the world we need to ensure that we protect their communications on land, sea or in air. The newest contested frontier is space and so we need to provide resilience and better communications for our forces. Skynet 6A is one of many solutions we shall be investing in over the next decade. This government recognises the urgent need to defend and promote space capabilities.”

The £500m contract with Airbus – which the government said will sustain 550 jobs in the UK – includes the entire process of designing, manufacturing, testing, integrating and, finally, launching, the technology.

It marks the second major investment in satellite technology made by the UK this month. 

Three weeks ago, the government and Indian telecoms Bharti agreed a $1bn deal to jointly acquire OneWeb – a satellite manufacturer that went bankrupt in March. The firm, which specialises in providing broadband in remote regions, already has 74 satellites in the air and plans to assemble a constellation of 48,000. 

The company was founded in 2012. It has offices in the UK and US and has attracted funding of $3.3bn during its lifespan. 

However, it entered bankruptcy and began seeking a buyer in March, claiming that the coronavirus crisis had scuppered its attempts to obtain further financing. It is yet to generate any sales, let alone profits – but a government minister has claimed a profit on the deal is “likely” for the UK.

The buyout is subject to approval from regulators, bankruptcy courts, and OneWeb’s creditors.

For the last two years, the government has been looking to ensure that the UK has long-term access to a satellite navigation and positioning network.

In 2018 it became clear that, following Brexit, although the UK could retain access to the consumer operations of the EU Galileo satnav network, the country would be shut out of the secure parts of that are designed for use by the emergency services and the military. Nor would it be allowed to play contribute to decision-making about the project’s future.

The UK had already spent about £1.2bn on supporting the development of the Galileo at the time it was effectively booted out of the programme.


Sam Trendall

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