US defense group Northrop Grumman has pulled out of the first stage of a competition to build a new generation of satellites for the UK’s armed forces. This leaves only one shortlisted contender for the tender. Northrop, a major space company, had partnered with Airbus to bid for a contract to deliver a narrowband satellite service for battlefield communications.
The contract is part of the £6 billion “SkyNet 6” program, which aims to provide secure communications and data to the military. The ongoing war in Ukraine has highlighted the increasing importance of instant communications, and future combat ships and fighter jets will rely heavily on the rapid delivery of large data amounts.
With Northrop’s withdrawal, questions arise about whether the government will proceed with this stage of the competition. Thales Alenia Space and Thales UK, the Franco-Italian group, now remain as the only shortlisted contender. Northrop was the lead contractor, with Airbus as its junior partner.
The Ministry of Defence stated that the narrowband and wideband procurement processes for SkyNet 6 are still ongoing. Northrop mentioned that it would continue collaborating with Airbus on the second part of the program, which involves delivering a constellation of up to three wideband capable systems for more strategic communication needs. Airbus is the lead contractor for the wideband bid.
This development raises doubts regarding the MoD’s aim for greater competition in satellite services provision while ensuring sovereign capability. Airbus has been operating the existing SkyNet 5 network for the MoD for the past 18 years. Rival companies such as Lockheed Martin and Thales Alenia Space are also in the running for the second SkyNet contract against the Airbus/Northrop partnership.
Alex Cresswell, CEO of Thales UK, expressed the company’s intention to submit a bid for the project, stating that the SkyNet 6 program presents a unique opportunity to transform the market. He emphasized that it would impact companies’ investment decisions in the UK and the development of industrial infrastructure.