In 2003, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) contracted with then-Paradigm to build and operate the Skynet 5 constellation through a Private Finance Initiative (PFI). Speaking boldly, the UK government displayed unprecedented bravery and vision to enter into an arrangement with industry for its critical secure network communications capability. Commercial operators and manufacturers can offer government smarter technology and better pricing through employing basic commercial practices. The MoD’s initiative to buck the norm of defence procurement, in favour of a pioneering solution, is indeed deserving of praise.
Fast forward a decade. Beyond Line-of-Sight (BLOS) requirements are evolving to meet national and international C2 and ISTAR requirements. The complexity of defence challenges drives the demand for adaptable bandwidth and adept SATCOM operators. Missions are more dependent than ever on delivering information and intelligence on the right target in real time using an assortment of sensors within and across services, nations, and systems. Ubiquitous communications are expected to be robust and reliable; to enable, rather than to hinder operations.
The MoD now has the opportunity to make another round of ground breaking choices as Skynet heads toward end-of-life in 2022. As progressive as the Skynet model was a decade ago, simply replacing “like for like” would be a missed opportunity to recalibrate MoD requirements with suitable capability whilst ensuring maximum cost efficiency. Innovation, flexibility, and the pace of technological change are key reasons for the MoD to rely on and leverage commercial space assets.
To use a golf analogy, buying a full constellation from a single company is akin to the driver in your bag. While it has great value, the driver is a very expensive, modestly versatile club. As the MoD faces as-yet undefined future military challenges, tightening budgets and a trend for greater bandwidth consumption, it will not be best served by a one-shoe-fits-all SATCOM constellation. The MoD needs wedges, hybrids and irons in its bag too.
The MoD need not forgo the fundamental tenant for a sovereign capability. Through continued flexibility and innovation (contractual and conceptual), capabilities from commercial industry can maximize the MoD’s ability to meet its fluctuating communications needs as they occur. It now needs to engage in flexible contract vehicles to acquire those capabilities thereby creating a competitive environment that can really drive down cost. Fortunately, industry remains open-minded, ready and able to support the MoD next generation BLOS secure communications network. To their credit, the MoD is engaging the industry as it determines requirements and performance. The test for the UK MoD is to face its new BLOS challenges with the same bravery and innovation it displayed 11 years ago.