Skynet – A New Saviour in the Sky

We take a look at the controversial Skynet 5 series, the third satellite of which is expected to launch in 2008.


It may be known to the masses as the military defence computer network that is the main antagonist in the movie Terminator which turns on its creators, but in real life Skynet has become more of a saviour for the UK's Ministry of Defence, which is now looking at the real-life network of computer-controlled defence satellites for its ability to reduce friendly fire and offer increased strategic delivery of defence operations.

The first two satellites in this series, Skynets 5A and 5B, were launched from Kourou in French Guyana in March and November 2007, with 5C planned to be launched in 2008. All satellites belonging to series 5 have been built by EADS Astrium.

"Skynet 5 is an integral part of a £3.6bn satellite system that will provide secure high-bandwidth communications."

SKYNET 5

Skynet 5 is an integral part of a £3.6bn system that will provide secure high-bandwidth communications for both UK and NATO forces. When completed, the three-satellite-strong package will provide the Army, Royal Navy and RAF with two-and-a-half times the capacity of previous systems to pass data far more speedily than before between command centres.

Designed specifically for military use, Skynet can match any civilian communications system with regard to technical specification.

The multi-billion-pound deal, financed by a private finance initiative between the Ministry of Defence and a subsidiary of Paradigm EADS Astrium which built the satellite itself, has already been hailed by the UK Minister for Defence Equipment and Support, Baroness Taylor, for its ability to improve defence operations around the world.

"Once complete, the Skynet programme will bring significant improvement to our global communications systems, especially for deployed operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and at sea," Baroness Taylor said.

But it is not only the satellite's benefits to defence that have gained recognition for this project. The deal itself has received praise for its approach and operation.

A NEW ERA IN MILITARY COMMUNICATION

To date, the Skynet deal is currently the largest city-funded defence procurement project in operation. François Auque, chief executive officer of Astrium, welcomed the deal, saying: "Progressing from the success of Skynet 5A, this marks another major milestone for Astrium with our latest triple challenge – building the Skynet 5 satellites, placing them in orbit on-board Ariane 5, and delivering a new era in secure military communications to the UK Ministry of Defence, in the form of a unique service provision approach."

"All Skynet satellites belonging to series 5 have been built by EADS Astrium."

Baroness Taylor has also praised the deal saying it is an 'excellent example of how partnerships between the MoD and industry should work'.

The MoD's contract with Astrium is set to run until 2020 and means that the company will operate the military satellite communications (milsatcom) system as partners with the MoD while retaining day-to-day autonomy for operation.

This also enables Astrium to offer milsatcom capacity not required by the MoD to other friendly powers such as NATO, the Netherlands, Portugal, Canada, France, Germany and Australia.

The milsatcom services offered by Paradigm range from complete X-band packages, through to milsatcom capacity, coverage augmentation, anchoring and back-haul services, as well as terminal leasing.

39 YEARS OF SKYNET

Described by the MoD as 'essential to support all aspects of modern military operations', Skynet supports strategic and tactical nuclear forces as well as maritime, air and land forces.

First conceived in the 1960s during the Cold War, the first Skynet satellite was launched in November 1969. Skynet 2A, built and designed by Marconi Space and Defence Systems at their plant in Portsmouth in England was launched in January 1974 followed by Skynet 2B in November 1974. It was the first satellite built outside of the US and the then USSR.

The third Skynet upgrade, however, was abandoned due to the speedy development of space technology work on Skynet 4. Skynet satellites 4A, 4B and 4C launched between December 1988 and August 1990, were the first purely British satellites. They were built by British Aerospace Dynamics (BAE) to a much enhanced design.

"Skynet 5 has two and a half times the capacity of previous systems."

The later satellites 4D, 4E and 4F, launched in turn between January 1998 and February 2001, were built by Matra Marconi Space and Astrium to yet higher specifications.

The first four Skynet systems were designed with the priorities of the Cold War in mind, although Skynet 5 only came into use after the cessation of the geo-political situation which caused it to be developed in the first instance.

The priorities for which Skynet 5's satellites have been built may have changed since Skynet's first installments but its defence priorities still remain for both British and NATO forces.

HELP FROM THE SKY

Servicemen and women will be some of the biggest beneficiaries of the Skynet milsatcom system. The fifth version's enhanced capabilities have seen it operate through Paradigm's free WelComE services to ensure that British service personnel on overseas postings can remain in close touch with families.

Through Skynet, they have the opportunity to make telephone calls and have access to the internet from operational theatres worldwide. This is part of a MoD-funded welfare package. Thus far, Paradigm has provided over a million hours of such telephone calls, according to an MoD spokesperson.

"Armed Forces on operational deployments require a secure and resilient communications capability that is available worldwide, at short notice and which does not rely upon there being a local communications infrastructure. This is currently best met by satellites," the spokesperson says.

"The Skynet 5B communications satellite will beam signals between UK and British forces deployed around the world. It will provide greater power and data rates which will ultimately provide a significant boost to operational capability for our forces, both on land and sea."

"Skynet supports strategic and tactical nuclear forces as well as maritime, air and land forces."

Thus, Skynet works in a fashion not unlike the humble Satnav found in motor cars and can be seen as utilising the same principles as the now well-known global positional systems satellites operated by the US Department of Defense and leased out for civilian applications. The difference is that Skynet 5B has the capacity for massive information exchange and is designed for the exclusive use of Britain's armed forces and those of her allies.

SKYNET IN SERVICE

For reasons of operational security, the MoD will not say whether Skynet has been used in a combat situation, but given that British Armed Forces routinely use various methods of electronic communications in the field it is possible that the satellite system has been used either in Iraq or in the recent successful campaign in the Helmand province of Afghanistan.

One controversial aspect of the military confrontations with terrorist forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq has been the much regretted deaths of allied servicemen due to so-called friendly fire incidents. For example, on 23 August 2007 three British soldiers from the Royal Anglian Regiment were killed, and two injured, by a US F-15 fighter. In another incident on 26 September 2007, two Danish soldiers were killed by a British missile. Could these deaths have been avoided if Skynet 5B had been online at the time?

Skynet 5B might also have been used to pinpoint focal points for forces engaged in both offensive and defensive operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq, especially when operating outside the cities. Thus it is quite possible that in the recent December 2007 battle of Musa Qala, carried out by the Afghan National Army with the assistance and support of the International Security Assistance Force, that possession of a resource similar to Skynet would have been a great advantage.

"The Skynet deal is currently the largest city-funded defence procurement project in operation."

This advantage can be more readily grasped when it is realised that amongst the forces committed to the battle were a considerable number of airborne units and that air transport has been the normative method of troop delivery in this conflict.

The craft used to deliver troops to the flash points are Chinooks and Blackhawks, often accompanied by Apache attack helicopters, which are able to carry light vehicles such as the prototype Black Knight (unmanned combat vehicle) designed by BAE Systems.

The Black Knight can be controlled from a command centre, raising the possibility of Skynet acting as the medium via which the Black Knight would be operated, or a dismounted control device (DCD). But even such DCDs will in future be delivered to terrorist flashpoints with the help of Skynet.