As a way of ameliorate the urgent need to replace its Skynet 5 fleet, in August the UK MoD ordered the construction of the Skynet 6A, a gapfiller satellite between the new generation Skynet 6 Enduring Capability Programme and the current Skynet 5 series. This order was made without a competition being held and it went to Airbus Defence and Space (Airbus DS), the firm that both built and now operates the current Skynet 5 fleet, as part of a private finance initiative (PFI) contract. These four Skynet 5 satellites are due to revert to UK MoD ownership at the end of the contract in 2022, albeit that they could carry on in use for a few years more.

Skynet 5 series satellites will need replacing. Courtesy: UKSpace.org

 

The question is: Will the MoD give the order to Airbus for brand new constellation as well? The answer is maybe – but only after a competition. The UK MoD is quick to note that the new fleet will be built after a competition between manufacturers such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin, in addition to Airbus DS.

Which ever manufacturer is chosen, the new contract is unlikely to use a PFI style contract again. Introduced by the Conservative Administration led by John Major, and extensively used by the Blair/Brown Labour govermnets, PFI contracts were used as a way to finance the construction and operation of expensive assets such as hospitals and schools while keeping the debt off government books, the idea being that the contractor/operator would also share the risk.

However, overall they have proven themselves to be poor value for taxpayers, with most of these long term contracts now yielding increasing costs, poor service, and with the actual operational contracts sold on, at a large profit, to other operators.

Nevertheless, the only PFI regarded to have worked properly – the one used for Skynet 5 –  is unlikely to be repeated. Apparently even this had a downside. According to Peter de Selding in Space Intel Report the contract drained the UK MoD and its military of all its satellite experts, and the military is determined that this will not happen again.