LONDON — Defense contractors have been given until March next year to submit bids to provide the U.K. military with a new generation of wideband communication satellites as part of the Ministry of Defence’s Skynet 6 program.

Procurement officials for Skynet 6 released an invitation earlier this month to Airbus Defence and Space, Lockheed Martin and Thales Alenia Space with instructions to respond no later than March 2024, said an industry executive who asked not to be named while discussing internal discussions with the government.

The three companies were announced by the MoD as being shortlisted earlier this year after responding to a pre-qualification questionnaire for that segment of the program, known as Skynet Enduring Capability Wideband Satellite System.

The British are in the midst of a competition to build a network of geostationary-orbit, narrow- and wideband communication satellites to replace existing Skynet 5 capabilities, built and operated by Airbus, as part of a wider £6 billion ($7.6 billion) program.

Submission of the bids for the wideband requirement will trigger a period of negotiations, followed by the MoD launching a second phase of the competition starting December 2024. A winner is expected to be announced the following year.

The government’s new solicitation came just days before a separate competition to build narrowband satellites for Skynet 6 was thrown into disarray when the Financial Times reported that Northrop Grumman was pulling out of the contest, seemingly leaving Thales Alenia Space as the only bidder left in the race.

The withdrawal has raised concerns here over whether the competition should be reset or proceed on a sole-source basis with the Franco-Italian bidder.

Thales Alenia Space declined to comment for this article.

For the moment, defense officials said the narrowband procurement is going ahead. But, according to the industry insider, they were furious about Northrop’s withdrawal announcement, which came as a surprise.

Northrop Grumman told the FT that it had withdrawn from the narrowband competition “after thoroughly reviewing” the government’s invitation to negotiate.

The U.S. space giant was to be the prime bidder in a partnership with Airbus Defence and Space. In return Airbus is taking the lead for the transatlantic bid for the wideband business, with Northrop Grumman as its junior partner.

Northrop Grumman declined to comment on the reasons for its withdrawal. Airbus said it wouldn’t comment on the commercial decisions of other companies.

Airbus and Northrop Grumman announced Oct. 23 that they had signed a memorandum of understanding to pursue the wideband satellite requirement in what the companies termed a “strategic partnership.”

That element of the Skynet tie-up between the two space companies continues.

Airbus is already building a satellite, known as Skynet 6A, to fill a capability gap ahead of the new generation of spacecraft becoming available in 2028.

Skynet 6A is scheduled to launch in 2025.

Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.

More In Europe