Britain’s aerospace capability needs safeguarding

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The UK’s defence aerospace sector needs strategic thinking if it’s to maintain the spread of skills across the whole design, development and production process, says Keith Hayward of the Royal Aeronautical Society

The government has widely advertised its support for UK aerospace as a core manufacturing asset. It has backed its words with financial support for civil aeronautics and space. However, Britain’s military aerospace sector faces a more uncertain future. There is no doubting the importance of airpower to the security of the UK, nor the value on an on shore industry capable of supporting British armed forces. Military aerospace also provide the bulk of UK military export sales. But the government’s public statements on the defence industrial base, including aerospace have been vague and ambiguous. Indeed, some of the policies pursued by the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) have tended to work contrary to the interests of an indigenous military aerospace industry.

The nature of the long term threat to capability is subtle, yet fundamental. On the one hand, sales of the Typhoon and other current products, as well as the promise of substantial production returns from participation in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, should offer a substantial return to British companies supporting thousands of jobs all over the country. On the other hand, there is risk to future high value business, the ‘noble’ work contained in the deep and wide body of aerospace knowledge built up over several decades. This body of knowledge comprises such complex skills as systems integration, advanced propulsion systems, avionics other electronics technologies; Indeed, the latter is now often a valuable element of overseas sales via incorporation in other national aerospace programmes.

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It represents the fundamental Intellectual Property (IP) that allows UK industry to fulfil urgent operational requirements, a degree of independence and security of supply, long term support for deployed equipment and a core contribution to national economic welfare. This feeds a manufacturing supply chain from internationally operating prime contractors to a myriad of smaller companies, and enables the UK to maintain safely an open, globalised approach to defence that has benefited the MoD and British industry. Should this nationally generated IP begin seriously to diminish, all of these benefits will rapidly disappear.

The Society believes that this is indeed the case. The UK cannot entirely rely on the production of overseas designed equipment, or on the technology, important though it is, of novel concepts such as unmanned aerospace systems. There is a need to support core technologies, especially in avionics and electronics; this may be best achieved through a programme of technology demonstration.

The UK must also continue to exploit the advantages of international collaboration with European and American partners. But the key consideration must again be the level of technological return delivered by cooperation. This may still be best achieved through working in more egalitarian collaboration with European partners. However, mindful of past mistakes and the economic limitations of many European collaborative programmes, future joint ventures must be soundly based and managed through strong central structures.

But in order to participate at the highest level in international programmes and to ensure the greatest return for the UK, UK companies must be able to offer state-of-the-art technology and process capabilities.  This again will depend upon investment in domestic technology.

There is a strong security and economic case for supporting the UK military aerospace industry; domestic procurement policies should not unreasonably increase the slope of the competitive playing field.  Support does not necessarily include, desirable though in principle this might be, commitment to expensive new platforms.  In the future, large new aerospace platforms will be increasingly rare (although upgrades, consequently, will be required), but it is vital that UK systems integrators for airframes, sensors and propulsion remain in a position to assume leading roles in international programmes.  To do so requires a concerted strategic investment in underpinning technologies, particularly in the electronics and avionics sectors.  These are the building blocks of future capability and export success, whether in indigenous programmes or sold into overseas platforms.  If the Government changes course in the manner we recommend, it will help to retain core manufacturing skills and the focus for academic and other research activity.

There is a world class body of knowledge embedded in the UK military aerospace industry, which should be defended and nurtured.  It is an investment for the future that will reap rich rewards in military effectiveness, economic success and political influence. Defence aerospace is a fundamental component of UK manufacturing success; producing high value goods and related services will generate future national income and underpin the country’s ability to sustain a high standard of life and deliver first rate public services.

Prof Hayward is the RAeS’s Head of Research. The full discussion paper can be downloaded here