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Skynet 5

Category: Defence

Skynet 5 is operating successfully and the client is happy with the way things are turning out.

 

Malcolm Peto, Managing Director of Paradigm

November, 2009

Skynet 5 is a £3.6bn project which provides satellite communication services to the MOD. Signed in October 2003 and running until at least 2020, it includes the design, build, and operation of three new satellites which went in to orbit during 2007 and 2008. Skynet 5 is now fully operating and is playing a crucial role in the British Military's activities in Afghanistan and around the world. Skynet 5 is not only the largest satellite project in Europe, it is also the only military satellite project in the world run by the private sector. 

Paradigm, which is 100% owned by EADS (the European Aeronautical Defence and Space Company), is responsible for delivering the project, controlling the satellites, managing the network and implementing all upgrades throughout its life. The PPP Forum spoke to Malcolm Peto, Managing Director of Paradigm, to find out more about the project.

What are the key components of the project?

The three Skynet 5 satellites, which were designed, built and launched by EADS Astrium for Paradigm, are located 36,000km in space, travel at over Mach 10 and have solar wings measuring 34m tip to tip. They are the most powerful military satellites launched to date by any European nation, have steering mechanisms so they can be focused onto particular regions of the world in order to support ongoing military operations and are military hardened so that they are highly resistant to attack from hostile countries.

It is estimated that Skynet 5 has two-and-a-half times the capacity of Skynet 4, allowing British Forces to transmit much more data, faster between command centres. For example Skynet 5 enables the transmission of real time video images which has allowed RAF personnel to use Reaper, a robot surveillance plane system, in the Afghanistan conflict with some considerable success.

As part of the PFI project Paradigm has also taken on the operation of the 6 satellites which make up the Skynet 4 programme, which had previously been owned by the MOD and which are expected to be operational until around 2012. 

The project also involves the replacement and updating of (earth-based) control centres, as well as antennas and terminals installed on planes, ships and land vehicles.

Any other special features of this PFI?

The maintenance aspect of the project poses distinct challenges and clearly compares distinctly from those experienced in, for example, a classic PFI hospital or school project. Clearly, retrieving a damaged satellite terminal from a warzone or carrying out repairs on a satellite situated in space take considerable know-how! To help meet these challenges Paradigm has a specialist team of 220 and another 100 or so full-time sub-contractors.  

The original plan for Skynet 5 was to launch only two satellites. However the premiums quoted to insure against loss on the two satellites were prohibitively expensive and Paradigm realised that it would be cheaper, and achieve the same objective, to launch a third satellite financed by money that had been set aside for insurance. Having cleared this with the Mod, Paradigm launched the third satellite in June 2008.

The PFI procurement route made it possible for Paradigm to use this cheaper way of protecting the Skynet 5 satellites against loss which, in the event, has the added benefit of significantly adding to the capacity of the project through the addition of an extra satellite. Malcolm Peto believes that this would not have been possible if the project had been procured conventionally. 

Paradigm guarantees the MOD a proportion of the satellites' bandwidth and any spare capacity can be sold to any nation on an approved list of predominantly NATO countries. Currently Paradigm are selling capacity to the US, Portugal, Holland, France, Germany and Australia for which the MOD receives a gain-share when certain levels of income are achieved. 

Despite the many extremely challenging aspects of the project, Skynet 5 is operating successfully and Malcolm Peto says the client is happy with the way things are turning out.