The UK Government has launched a competition to operate and maintain the country’s £6bn next-generation military satellite communications system, Skynet 6.

In November 1969, the UK launched its first Skynet satellite (Skynet 1A). After the success of subsequent Skynet programmes, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is upgrading its military satellite system to offer secure, long-range communications to the armed forces and UK allies.

The government expects to use the upgraded system to facilitate the transmission of secure communications from a ship at sea and support unmanned aerial vehicle operations.

The upgraded system could also enable fighter jet pilots to receive or upload operational data in real-time, or allow land forces to carry out missions in remote environments.

The Skynet 6 Service Delivery Wrap (SDW) contract covers the operation of the UK’s constellation of satellites and ground stations, as well as delivery and management of ground terminal infrastructure.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said: “50 years ago, Britain put its first satellite, Skynet1, in space. Today we’re having to deal with increasing threats to satellite-based navigation and the need for robust communications has never been more vital.

“That’s why we’re developing Skynet6, which will give our forces unparalleled capacity to talk to each other in any hostile environment.”

The government said that it will announce further contracts related to other aspects of the Skynet 6 programme in the coming months.

The successful bidder is also required to negotiate the MOD’s access to commercial satellite services, as well as handle the UK’s contribution and access to systems owned and operated by the country’s allies.