DSEI 2021: UK Skynet 5 SATCOM to stay with Strategic Command

The UK’s Strategic Command will maintain operational control over the Skynet 5 space-based surveillance system through the lifetime of the programme, despite earlier reports that it would cede day-to-day use to the newly created UK Space Command.

Skynet is a family of military communications satellites operated for the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) providing strategic communications services to the UK and allied nations. Under the Skynet Enduring Capability, the UK will receive the next-generation satellite communications (SATCOM) using new space-based assets and monitoring and control systems.

Skynet 6A
Airbus will manufacture the Skynet 6A satellites in the UK, with integration and testing also carried out in-country. Airbus

Confirming the intended operation use of the current and future Skynet systems, AVM Harvey Smyth, director space at the UK MOD’s Space Directorate, speaking at DSEI 2021, told AIR International that Space Command would gradually take the lead for Skynet 6 as the programme develops.

In January this year, Airbus announced the completion of first key phase of the Skynet 6A project with the achievement of the Preliminary Design Review (PDR), lining the way for its progress into the next phase leading to the Critical Design Review (CDR). Airbus was awarded the Skynet 6A contract in July 2020, valued at more than £500m (US$691m).

The contract also covers technology development programmes, new secure telemetry, tracking and command systems, launch, in-orbit testing and ground segment updates to the current Skynet 5 system.

Speaking at the time Richard Franklin, managing director of Airbus Defence and Space UK, stated that Skynet 6A would “significantly enhance” the UK’s SATCOM capability, currently comprised of four Skynet 5 satellites. The new satellites will be entirely built in the UK, with the first planned for launch in 2025.

The Skynet 5 programme, delivered by Airbus as a full service outsource contract, has provided the MOD with secure military communications services, supporting global operations since 2003, with the company involved in all Skynet build phases since 1974.

The programme began by using legacy Skynet 4 satellites and augmenting them with a refurbished ground network before launching the Skynet 5A, 5B, 5C and 5D satellites between 2007 and 2012.

The Skynet 6A satellite itself is based on Airbus’ Eurostar Neo telecommunications satellite platform utilising additional radio frequency spectrum and digital processing to provide greater capacity than the proceeding type.   

The satellite will feature electric orbit raising propulsion as well as electric station keeping systems, with integration taking place at Airbus facilities in the UK following by testing using RAL Space facilities at Harwell, in Oxfordshire.

Delivering a keynote presentation at DSEI 2021 exhibition in London on September 14, Smyth detailed what the future of the UK defence space would entail, pointing to space as now being an “overtly contested” domain.

“We are seeing conflict below the threshold [of war] in the space domain,” Smyth stated, adding that such threats included spoofing attacks and other non-kinetic methods to disrupt operations.

Continuing, Symth also considered when the first instance of “space-based terrorism” would occur, in what was described as the “second space race”.

Meanwhile, it was revealed that the release of the long-delayed defence space strategy paper would occur at the end of September, along with the UK National Space Strategy.

By Richard Thomas