LONDON — Britain’s Ministry of Defence is about to launch the final stage of a competition to manage ground station capabilities for the armed forces Skynet satellite communications network by early June, say industry executives.

Release of the invitation to negotiate documents to several industry consortia had been expected last week. Although the date appears to have slipped a little, industry executives, who asked to not be identified, say they still expect the MoD to trigger the final stage of the competition “imminently.”

The documents are expected to be issued to selected bidders within the next two weeks. Four bidder groups are in line to be selected for the next stage of negotiations, said people with knowledge of the competition.

The ground control elements of the MoD’s existing Skynet 5 network are currently managed by Airbus Defence & Space as part of a long running private finance initiative deal with the MoD originally awarded in 2003.

Part of that deal is now coming to a close with Airbus’s hold on the ground control management of Skynet finishing in August 2022.

A one year transition period is expected to kick off in 2021, if Airbus has to handover the role to a challenger.

The new competition, for a program known as the service delivery wrap, aims to compete management of the ground control stations until a new generation of communication satellites are launched around 2028. That phase is being called the enduring capability element of the Skynet 6 program.

Together the service delivery wrap and the enduring capability competitions are the main parts of a Skynet 6 program, which is aimed at taking Britain’s satellite communications into a new era at a cost in the vicinity of £6 billion ($7.3 billion).

A new satellite, known as Skynet 6A, is being acquired from Airbus to ensure communication capabilities are not compromised ahead of the new generation of satellites becoming available later in the decade.

Negotiations on that deal have been dogged by delays.

Airbus were named preferred contractor for Skynet 6A as far back as 2017 but the full contract for that deal has yet to be signed.

The company, Britain’s biggest space contractor, has been working on long lead components of the satellite in order to stay on track. A contract for the manufacturing of long lead items and preliminary design work was signed, but not announced by the MoD and Airbus in March.

A second phase of the Skynet 6A deal covering build, test, launch and deployment is currently working its way through the MoD and wider government approvals process.

A spokesman for Airbus told Defense News “We are working on elements of 6A. We are hoping for a full contract mid-year.”

With one exception, it’s not clear who the runners might be in the final stages of the service delivery wrap competition, as the MoD has insisted all contenders sign a non-disclosure agreement preventing all communication with the media and others.

Competing teams are not even allowed to publicly acknowledge they are interested in bidding.

The exception is a team made up of service provider Serco, satellite operator Inmarsat, IT specialist CGI UK and the U.K. arm of defense giant Lockheed Martin.

It announced its teaming arrangement late last year, just ahead of the MoD bringing the shutters down with its non-disclosure order.

The four companies reinforced their bid credentials May 19, announcing they were forming a team known as Athena, after the Olympian god of war and wisdom, to bid for upcoming U.K. and overseas military and civil space capability programs.

Kevin Craven, the CEO for Serco UK & Europe, called Athena an “exciting new team that will deliver enhanced space-based technologies and services from the U.K. Athena will boost British capabilities, as well as the economy, via growth in this fast-moving, developing sector. The launch of Athena also ensures diversity and choice in the U.K. space sector for future sustainable development.”

There was no mention of Skynet 6 in the Athena announcement. It did however say that Athena will “work on a number of opportunities that leverage space-based technologies, their ground-based systems and end-to-end services as they arise, both in the U.K. and internationally.”

A spokesman for Athena declined to comment on whether they were bidding for the service delivery wrap program, but it’s clear they are a contender given the announcement of their interest last December when industry prequalification questionnaires had to be returned to the MoD.

It remains a matter of speculation for the moment who the other bidders are. Previously Airbus, Babcock, Boeing, BT and Viasat have all been unofficially linked with having an interest in the competition.

Companies Defense News tried to contact either declined to comment or didn’t return calls.

For Serco, who already provide some of the manpower for the current Airbus Skynet ground station operation, the Athena teaming is the latest in a string of announcements over the last few week that have reinforced its position as a space sector services provider here.

In short order the company has secured separate contract extensions to continue to operate and maintain key ballistic missile defense radars at Fylingdales, northern England and as part of the Skynet 5 program providing support to the U.S. Air Force Satellite Control Network (AFSCN) at Oakhanger, southern England.

The U.S. division of the company announced early April it had been awarded a deal to manage and maintain the U.S. Space Force ground-based electro-optical deep space surveillance (GEODSS) system.

Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.

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