Military SATCOM technology, a brilliant UK capability

7 May 2014 – Of all the military capability required or demanded by UK armed forces none has greater significance than the ability to communicate information. Access to a constant stream of available intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) data is crucial to troops on the ground in any theatre of war and Satellite Communications (SATCOM) provide the only fast, reliable and efficient conduit which transmits this data to front-line commanders.

Modern warfare is ‘bandwidth hungry’ and we can expect the insatiable demand for this resource to increase exponentially in the years ahead as the battlespace becomes an evermore connected, ‘smart’ environment. Thankfully SATCOM offers a positive story in terms of the UK’s sovereign capability; the hardended and protected Skynet 5 system is keeping us well ahead of the game in this regard. However the future will demand greater, and more complex, systems; Britain cannot afford to throw away its competitive advantage in this arena, perpetual R&D is the only answer.

Operation Herrick has shown that military SATCOM technology is able to handle ever-increasing rates of usage and growth. That growth will continue as the need to supply troops, ships, aircraft and drones with ever increasing amounts of data continues to escalate.  “We are still scratching the surface in terms of the amount of data that we will be expected to create and supply to those deployed in future wars compared to what we are doing now” was a very interesting remark made to me by a senior army officer very recently.

While Skynet 5 still has ample capacity, those charged with responsibility for the next generation of this crucial capability must realise that the appetite for new ISR and logistics-based data applications will rapidly grow apace. Conservative estimates suggest that within the next decade the requirement for SATCOM military data transmission could well be three times higher than it is today.

Skynet 5 is the world’s first, and to date, most successful military SATCOM service. It also provides an exemplar model of just how a PFI (Private Finance Initiative) contract partnership between the military and industry really can work for the benefit of all parties involved.

Accurate, timely delivery of secured information through a protected SATCOM system together with the ability to provide on-demand data communication to and from virtually all parts of the globe has come a long way since the first SATCOM systems became available to the MOD twenty-five years ago. Used with great effect during the first Gulf War, the Skynet 4 military satellite system provided a giant leap forward in MOD satellite communication capability and significantly increased the number of available options for military commanders and personnel on the ground.

A great deal has changed since the first of four Skynet 4 satellites were sent into orbit and the first ground systems were delivered and used in theatre back in 1988. Skynet 5 has shown not only that the UK is extremely capable of building sovereign space assets but also the best wideband military satellite available in the world. It will continue to provide the MOD – plus a number of other NATO member states – with military satellite communications capacity through to 2022, at which point a third generation of satellite technology will need to come into play.

Given that the existing PFI arrangement continues until 2022, while it may appear premature to be talking about a successor programme to Skynet 5, I believe that the rapid growth in secure military data requirement means that the UK government should prioritise future SATCOM capability intentions now. Clearly, replacement of the existing programme will pose a crucially important question for the UK in terms of retention of sovereign capability. With thousands of highly skilled UK jobs involved it is essential that the government recognises the importance of this project.

Seamless and secure transmission of data – be it relatively unclassified or highly sensitive – is something that can’t be left to chance or piggy backed onto a standard commercial communications satellite. The average commercial satellite does not have the protection or anti-jamming capability required to guarantee the security of government information, be this military or diplomatic.

Be in no doubt that potential enemies recognises NATO’s relies on SATCOM. If we as a nation fail to provide fast rates of ISR data transmission to what we may regard as low tech forces on the ground, our military will be seriously disadvantaged.

Sadly, as we have seen in other defence related issues since SDSR 2010, the UK has an increasing tendency to ignore the virtues of skills retention and sovereign capability. We must reverse this dangerous trend and protect critical technology.

In drawing this piece to a close we should note that with manufacturing sites at Portsmouth, Stevenage and Corsham there is a lot at stake for the future of UK SATCOM development. The partnership model between industry and the MOD has, as I have said, undoubtedly worked well and future decisions must reflect all the many aspects of what went right with Skynet 5. We must also realise that societal change will also see a vast increase in the amount of data being thrown around. The bottom line is that whatever follows on from Skynet 5 must be flexible and adaptable in order to cope with a world that will continue to change and exact new demands on the military.

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
Tel: 07710 779785

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