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Last Updated: Friday, 11 May 2007, 11:37 GMT 12:37 UK
Bandwidth leap for British forces
British troops fire a mortar at Gereshk, Afghanistan (PA)
Skynet 5 is already supporting operations in Afghanistan
UK forces in Afghanistan and Iraq have started using a new satellite system that will see a dramatic improvement in their communications capability.

They are now sending voice, images and other data over the Skynet 5A platform.

The spacecraft, which was launched in March, is part of a 3.6bn project to upgrade the super-fast connections between command centres.

"It's making a clear difference already," Brigadier Simon Shadbolt at the Ministry of Defence told BBC News.

"In Afghanistan, where we've been using the system probably more than in Iraq, our troops have seen a noticeable increase in capability."

Data demand

Skynet 5A was launched from Kourou in French Guiana on 11 March.

It is the first in what will eventually be a three-spacecraft constellation providing satcoms support to the Army, Royal Navy and RAF, wherever they might be operating across the globe.

There was a huge sigh of relief when Skynet 5A went into orbit
Malcolm Peto, Paradigm Secure Communications
The spacecraft match the sophistication of the very latest civilian platforms used to pass TV, phone and internet traffic - but are "hardened" for military use.

They incorporate novel antenna technology that will resist attempts to hijack or "jam" the platforms.

Skynet 5A together with its sister platforms, 5B and 5C (an in-orbit spare), provide two-and-a-half times the bandwidth capacity of the previous system.

Over the course of the next few years, they will gradually take over the traffic currently passed through four Skynet 4 spacecraft. And it is expected Skynet 5 will experience heavy demand.

Skynet 5A has been tested and pressed into service

Information is now key to successful modern military operations.

Good examples are the growth in the use of intelligence imagery and the rise of remote-controlled weapons.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) produce large volumes of still and moving pictures that need to be sent over networks for analysis and attack planning.

Skynet will be particularly useful when the UK takes delivery of Predator B drones for use in Afghanistan.

"Skynet gives us capacity - a two-and-a-half times capability enhancement; it's assured - commanders want to know they will get through each time they press the send button; and it's also resilient against computer-based threats," said Brigadier Shadbolt.

Business plan

The Ministry of Defence does not own the Skynet system; the military merely buys the services run over it from a company called Paradigm Secure Communications.

This arrangement - the most expensive Private Finance Initiative (PFI) signed by the MoD - allows for spare bandwidth on the new satellites to be sold to "friendly" forces, earning money not just for Paradigm but for the defence department as well.

Military satphone (Paradigm)
Information is now key to successful modern military operations
Paradigm is already providing services to Nato, France, Germany, Canada, Portugal and the Netherlands. It is actively seeking new business in the US, Australia and the Middle East.

"There was a huge sigh of relief when Skynet 5A went into orbit because a huge lump of risk was retired. It was a job well done," said Malcolm Peto, managing director of Paradigm Secure Communications.

"We're now looking forward to the launch of 5B towards the end of this year, and 5C around the middle of next year; full operational service will come in 2008."

Ground control segments for the new system have been upgraded; and ships, planes and land vehicles are being equipped to make the best use of the upgraded Skynet.

Skynet system
The satellites are 'hardened' against interference. A special receive antenna (1) can resist attempts at jamming
Each spacecraft has four steerable antennas (2) that can concentrate bandwidth on to particular regions
The system gives global coverage (3), providing 2.5 times the capacity afforded by the previous system
Each spacecraft (4) is a 3x4x4.5m box and weighs just under 5 tonnes; the solar wings once unfurled measure 34m tip to tip
Improved technologies, including a solar 'sail' (5), lengthen the platforms' operational lives to at least 15 years

Skynet 5 lift-off

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