Whilst it is relatively easy to build, launch and fly a drone, controlling them over great distances and then launching missiles and bombs requires a key element that is available to relatively few forces – military satellites.
The UK has three military hardened Skynet 5 satellites in geostationary orbit 40,000km above the earth’s surface which relay communications between headquarters in the UK and British forces deployed on operations overseas. A fourth Skynet 5 satellite will be launched in 2013.
The satellites enable RAF pilots sitting in their base in the Nevada desert to fly Reaper drones and launch their missiles over Afghanistan. Via Skynet 5’s high-bandwidth connection, information and video from the Reapers over Afghanistan is beamed to Creech USAF base in Nevada and to the UK.
Skynet 5 however is not owned by the Ministry of Defence, but by a private company called Paradigm Secure Communication. In 2003 the Ministry of Defence signed a £3.6bn deal with Paradigm Secure Communication for provision of all worldwide satellite communications services to UK Armed Forces up to 2018 (later amended to 2020 and then this year extended to 2022). This Private Finance Initiative (PFI), one of the most expensive ever signed by the MoD, is paid for in part by selling spare bandwidth to other military forces.
Paradigm Secure Communications is a wholly owned subsidiary of EADS (the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company), one of the world largest military companies. Within the company structure, Paradigm is part of Astrium Services, which delivers space-based services to military and government users. Astrium Services owns 75% of Milsat Services which also provides military satellite communication services to both the German armed forces and the French Navy.
While British Reaper drones are flying over Afghanistan and controlled by pilots in the Nevada desert, the Skynet system is operated out of several locations in the UK. The system has two satellite ground stations, one in Hampshire (Oakhanger) and one in Wiltshire (Colerne). However Paradigm operates the Skynet 5 satellites from a dedicated centre in Hawthorn, Wiltshire, very close to the MoD’s Defence Communications and Services Agency (DCSA) Global Operations and Security Control Centre at Corsham.