Skynet is the name of the British satellite based military communications system. It has had several incarnations, the current generation of which is Skynet 4. The first Skynet satellite was launched in 1969. It is used by all three arms of the British armed forces – the British Army, the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force – as well as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the British eavesdropping agency GCHQ, the Secret Intelligence Service and the Security Service.

The system is based around a number of geosynchronous satellites which relay encrypted signals from ground stations, ships, and between each other. Each successive Skynet satellite is designated with its generation and an alphabetic character – Skynet 4E, for example.

Skynet began in the mid-1960s, when Chief of the Defence Staff Lord Mountbatten recommended that the three armed forces use one single communications system. A key figure in its early life was Wing Commander Frank Padfield, later to become an Air Commodore. As a technically competent radar and guided weapons instructor at the RAF Technical College, in 1967 he was assigned to begin work on the project of merging the disparate networks. He joined a 30-man team at the then Ministry of Technology. As Skynet operational programmes director for the Ministry of Defence (MoD), Padfield had to coordinate the work in both departments with strict deadlines and a £26m budget.

While his team was proficient and professional, Padfield's main problem was in dealing with entrenched bureaucracy and inter-service rivalry. The MoD was opposed to the project in principle, as was the RAF, which remained bitterly hostile because it held sole control of the existing British high frequency communications system.

Despite this, the first Skynet 1 satellite was launched on 22nd November 1969 from Cape Canaveral. Built by Ford Aerospace, it weighed 422kg and resembled nothing more than a huge zoetrope. Reports differ over Skynet 1A’s fate. Some accounts describe nine years of active service, which would have far exceeded its expected life, but others suggest it failed prematurely. Skynet 1B was launched on 19th August 1970, but at least here sources are in agreement that it failed to reach its geosynchronous position, becoming stranded in a lower orbit when a rocket motor malfunctioned.

Skynet 2 satellites were spin-stabilised, weighed 240kg and used two communications bands, 20MHz and 2MHz. In appearance, they, again, were large drum-shaped constructions, although they were smaller than the first van-sized modules. This second programme began unsuccessfully in 1974 with the loss of Skynet 2A following another launch malfunction. Skynet 2B, however, worked perfectly, and amazingly was still in service 20 years later.

There was never a Skynet 3, and, despite my best efforts, I have been unable to find out why. Which is vaguely frustrating.

Skynet 4, however, is currently in use by the British services. It was built by British defence contractor British Aerospace (now BAe Systems). The first three units were deployed successively throughout 1988-1990 by the American Titan 3 rocket (4A) and the European Arianne (4B and 4C). Designed to last only seven years, they included hugely improved electronics, jam-resistance and 16-foot solar panels as well as multichannel X-band, EHF and UHF band transponders. In 1998-99, as 4A-4C began to reach the end of their working life, NASA kindly lifted three more birds for the MoD. 4D-4F are of the same generation but have been reworked by contractors Matra Marconi Space (now part of sprawling European contractor EADS Space). Their incremental improvements include hardening against EMP, further jam-resistance and directable antennae for tactical purposes.

The Skynet 4 constellation are now reaching their final days, and so the MoD has been waving vast contracts for the next generation of satcoms platforms at aerospace contractors since early 2002. Skynet 5 is still two to three years from being deployed, but will have the singular distinction of being the world’s only outsourced military communications network. The MoD awarded the contract to build the satellites to EADS Space and another contract to run and maintain them to Paradigm Secure Communications, a wholly owned EADS subsidiary; the MoD will, in effect, pay to lease the satellites’ use. This is an example of the British Government’s Private Finance Initiative (PFI) at work, and indeed Skynet 5 is the largest PFI contract yet awarded. The tangled, incestuous web of defence contracts and sub-contracts sees EADS subsidiary Paradigm awarding a sub-contract for upgrading ground control stations and naval communications to … EADS Space.

“BAe battles for £2.5bn MoD contract”. The Sunday Telegraph, 24 Feb 2002

David Hastings’ Comsats Page,

“EADS in Britain’s biggest PFI deal with MoD”. The Times, 25 October 2003

Obituary, Frank Padfield CBE. The Guardian, 13 Feb 2004

“Paradigm awarded Skynet 5 contract”, Paradigm Communications.

“Skynet”, Federation of American Scientists.