UK launches SKYNET – not a doomsday plot, just shopping for improved satellite comms

They really need to start branding these things better

After a week when the media sphere has been alive with the wildest claims about AI and its supposed power to wipe out humanity, it may not have been the best time for the UK's Ministry of Defence to launch a £1.5 billion procurement for SKYNET. Still, maybe they didn't get the memo.

Closer examination reveals that the Whitehall department is not about to set us on a path to our doom at the hands of nefarious robots, but is instead looking to buy a new satellite communications network.

According to an official notice published recently, the MoD has kicked off the competition for suppliers to provide "the next era of satellite communications to the MoD using new space assets."

The procurement is for "the design, manufacture and post-design services of up to three wideband GEO satellite systems, associated ground equipment, and launch operations incorporating measures to deliver an Assured Capability."

The MoD's Assured Capability policy [PDF] is designed to ensure it understands the effectiveness and vulnerabilities of technology and capabilities throughout their development.

The MoD says it requires a microwave X band, Mil-Ka band (26.5–40 gigahertz) and Ultra-High Frequency (300 megahertz and 3 gigahertz) broadcast communications payload. The frequency bands will be designed to serve secure telemetry, tracking and command, and inter-satellite links, among other applications.

The SKYNET Programme already exists. In 2020, the UK government said it is "a family of military communications satellites, currently operated for the MoD, that provides strategic communication services to the UK Armed Forces and allies."

SKYNET 5 is the most recent generation of this family, it said. Under the SKYNET Enduring Capability (SKEC) programme, the MoD was looking to deliver satellite communications using new "space assets and a way to monitor and control them."

"To meet these additional demands, the MoD SKEC team want to build a network of satellites, ground stations and other user services to provide first-class communications for government, allies and especially our defence personnel, whether they're on operational duty or keeping in touch with family and friends while deployed," a notice said in 2020.

Quite how they came up with the name, given the association with popular culture's paranoid take on the prospects for AI, is anyone's guess. Maybe someone should ask military intelligence. ®

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