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Britain Readies 4th Skynet for Dec. Launch

TOULOUSE, France — The fourth and likely the last of Britain’s Skynet 5 military telecommunications satellites, Skynet 5D, is scheduled to arrive at Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport in South America by mid-November to prepare for a Dec. 19 launch aboard an Ariane 5 ECA rocket.

Riding with the 4,900-kilogram satellite will be Mexico’s Mexsat 3 telecommunications satellite, a small example of Skynet 5’s status as a military satellite at home in the commercial world.

Nearly 10 years after the Skynet 5 contract was signed, it remains either an avatar of future military telecommunications programs or an anomaly — it depends who is asked.

This year, the French defense minister said France would not seek to sell its current Syracuse 3 military telecommunications satellites to the private sector as part of an outsourcing of military satellite communications services.

The U.S. Air Force similarly has struggled with multiple proposals to commercialize the less-strategic military satellite telecommunications systems, but up to now has been unable to find the formula.

Germany, Italy and Spain have moved partly in the direction of privatization.

None has gone as far as Britain and Astrium Services, which as of 2003 took ownership of Britain’s old Skynet 4 satellites and committed to provide a protected communications service to British military authorities with satellites that Astrium would purchase, launch and own.

Originally foreseen as two satellites, the contract has evolved to comprise four Skynet 5 spacecraft and extended to 2022 with an estimated total value of up to 3.6 billion British pounds ($5.75 billion).

Astrium Services has agreed to provide surge capacity to British forces and has built satellites that account for this while also giving the company additional capacity to sell to third parties approved by British authorities.

To date, Astrium Services has sold Skynet 5 X-band capacity to NATO and to the governments of the U.S., France, Germany, Portugal, Canada, Austria, the Netherlands, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Germany.

In addition, Astrium Services, through its London Satellite Exchange affiliate, can purchase L-, C- or Ku-band capacity available on the commercial market to complement the military UHF or X-band aboard Skynet 5.

As the years have passed since the contract was signed in 2003, Astrium has been able to use the British government’s anchor customer status to upgrade Skynet-related ground equipment and services.

“We can do the capex,” said Simon Kershaw, executive director of Astrium Services Government Communications, referring to the capital expenditure required to upgrade the Skynet system. “Then the customer comes in and buys a service on a usage basis, so there is a continual technology refresh going into the infrastructure. Under a conventional government buy, this would take forever to procure. But we understand that there will be a minimum volume that makes our investment worthwhile.”

In a Nov. 6 press briefing here on Skynet 5 before Skynet 5D left Astrium Satellites’ factory for the launch site, Kershaw said that different nations’ tax laws may partly explain why the Skynet 5 example has not been followed by others. But he rejected arguments that the British defense establishment is unhappy with the program after 10 years.

“I don’t think they would have extended it to 2022 if this was the case,” he said. “Clearly governments have a need for sovereign control of these kinds of assets and we have been able to guarantee that with Skynet 5.

“Overwhelmingly, we have gotten support from the customer that this is a success. The senior [British] military will stand up and stand alongside us and express their support for it.”

Astrium is now discussing with British authorities on what happens next for Skynet 5 and a possible follow-on system given the evolving military requirement and the troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan.

With Astrium’s purchase of the X-band capacity being launched aboard Telesat Canada’s Anik-G1 commercial telecommunications satellite over the Pacific in early 2013, the company will have a near-global X-band coverage stretching from 178 west to 135 degrees east in geostationary orbit.

What Astrium Services does not have is a Ka-band offering for military customers. Kershaw said Astrium understands that U.K., U.S. and other military forces are moving to Ka-band for broadband links. Sooner or later, he said, the company will address that demand.

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