LONDON — Britain’s defense secretary has fired the starting gun on an industry competition to manage the ground station element of the £6 billion Skynet 6 communications satellite program.

“I can announce the launch of a new competition for an industry partner to operate and manage the ground stations, infrastructure and technology involved in this [Skynet 6] program,” Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace said in a speech at the DSEI defense exhibition in London Wednesday.

The invitation to industry players could see incumbent ground service provider Airbus lose the contract after more than 15 years operating ground stations and satellites in the Skynet 5 private finance initiative deal with the British Ministry of Defence.

The ground station service deal with Airbus comes to an end in 2022.

Earlier MoD briefings to industry said they envisioned a contract award to the winning bidder around August next year.

Julian Knight, head of networks at the MoD’s Information Systems and Services organization said the government was about to enter a vital phase of the program.

“We are seeking an innovative partner that will ensure effective and consistent defense satellite communications and will look to continually maximize performance and value for money,” he said. “The successful bidder will also negotiate the MoD’s access to commercial satellite services, as well as managing the U.K.’s contribution and access to systems owned and operated by the U.K.’s allies,” said Knight.

Ken Peterman, president of government systems at Viasat, said he was pleased at the references to commercial capabilities being adopted as part of the program.

“ We are very encouraged by today’s Skynet 6 announcement as it further demonstrates the value of commercial satellite trajectories and the need for an ecosystem that will allow war fighters to use both commercial and MoD purpose-built capabilities as one seamless enterprise.”

It’s not clear whether the British intend to use the Skynet 6 ground stations for non-communications satellite applications in the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sector.

Airbus wasted no time officially declaring it would be bidding for what’s known as the service delivery element of the Skynet 6 program, and rivals are expected to follow suit in the next few weeks.

“Airbus has an outstanding track record of being the pioneer of secure mil satcoms within a commercial framework….We look forward to offering the MoD a modernized and enhanced service with Skynet 6,” said the European-based company in a statement.

Inmarsat, Viasat, Serco, Lockheed Martin UK and others are also expected to submit bids either leading or partnering in competing consortia.

A spokeswoman for Lockheed Martin U Kconfirmed the company is “interested in participating” in the service delivery competition.

The service delivery element of the program is the first part of a wider Skynet 6 program also planned to include a raft of capabilities to provide next generation non-line of sight communications.

The competition for that element, known as enduring capability, is expected to get underway with an invitation to tender in the first quarter of 2020.

Some of the same companies interested in the ground station portion of the deal will be pitching for the future capability requirement.

Airbus is the main satellite player here but Lockheed Martin has been ramping up its U.K. space credentials and others like Viasat are also rapidly expanding their presence.

Airbus, the European space leader, has already secured a contract with the British to provide a new satellite known as Skynet 6A for capabilities to supplement the four Skynet 5 satellites currently in operation. Airbus was selected for 6A without a competition over a year ago, but the deal has yet to be signed.

A spokesman for Airbus in the U.K. confirmed the satellite contract had not been sealed but said he was optimistic the deal would be completed by the end of the year. The in service date for the satellite is targeted for mid2025.

Beefing up space capabilities has become a top priority for the British and the threat posed by rival nations was referenced by service chiefs speaking at the DSEI show.

Wallace referenced it as well.

“Today we’re having to deal with increasing threats to satellite-based navigation and the need for robust communications has never been more vital," he said. “That’s why we’re developing Skynet 6, which will give our forces unparalleled capacity to talk to each other in any hostile environment.”

The British announced earlier this year they are collaborating with the U.S. on a project known as Artemis, aimed at researching the military potential of launching a constellation of small satellites.

The goal is to launch a demonstrator vehicle within 12 months. Small satellite development is pretty much dominated by the British, primarily through the Airbus owned Surrey Satellites Technology.

The British are also the first international partner to formally sign up for a little talked about U.S.-led coalition effort called Operation Olympic Defender, aimed at strengthening allies’ ability to deter hostile actions by nations like Russia and China.

Despite the new urgency to build a space capability, the British have still not published their long awaited space defense strategy detailing how the military intends to develop its space thinking in the decade ahead.

Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston, who recently took over as the chief of the air staff, declined to say when the document might surface or why its publication has been delayed for more than a year.

Industry executives though were more forthcoming. One executive, who asked not to be named, said one of the principal reasons for the delay was the haggling between Joint Forces Command and the Royal Air Force over who would end up controlling Britain’s military space activities.