Engineering opportunities in the defence sector

The UK defence sector is ideally placed to take advantage of the rebalancing of the UK economy.

The UK defence budget may have been cut from £37bn to around £34bn for the next four years, with the US and European markets also being squeezed. But defence spending globally is still rising and demand for engineering skills is expected to remain strong.

Rees Ward, chief executive of the industry trade organisation ADS Group, points out that the UK remains the third-highest defence spending nation in the world. Some parts of the industry may find opportunities in ’adjacent’ markets such as security, or the energy sector and the Department for Business has set up an initiative to help. Many defence companies have already diversified to insulate themselves from a downturn in the domestic defence market. And with the government seeking to rebalance the UK economy towards exports, the defence sector is ideally placed.

Type 45 destroyer
Type 45 destroyer

’In the short term it will be painful. There are gong to be job losses, no doubt in economic cycles and when budgets are constrained, jobs reduce. SMEs are the most vulnerable part of the industry in a downturn and they will need help; the most agile and responsive companies we have in the defence sector will find a way through,’ said Ward.

The defence sector represents 10 per cent of UK high-technology manufacturing, employs more than 305,000 and generates £35bn annually, and is collectively the biggest exporter in Europe. It already has 21 per cent of the available world export market, second only to the US, and the recent decline in the sterling exchange rate has improved competitiveness. The industry is actively seeking to expand in emerging export markets.

’We do well in exports because we produce high-quality products and services at competitive prices,’ said Rees.

Moreover, he added: ’Beyond 2015, the government has committed to increase defence funding in real terms, which will be the bare minimum funding needed if it continues to use the armed forces in the way it has been doing.’

For exports, even a squeezed US market is huge. Beyond Europe and the US, established export markets in the Middle East are expected to remain strong because of the UK’s strategic links. Then there are emerging opportunities in markets such as India and Brazil.

In the immediate future many long-term projects will progress more slowly than expected while the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) works on balancing its budget. But a range of significant developments are nevertheless in prospect.

The Type 45 destroyer, of which the fourth, HMS Dragon, was handed over to the MoD in August, is proving its capability as an air-defence ship.

’Its air-defence weapons system Sea Viper doesn’t have a peer in the world at the moment, even in the US. It’s a huge success story,’ said Ward.

Because of its sophistication and hence cost, the Type 45 itself may be hard to sell to other customers, although some of its systems may find export markets. However, the navy needs ships in numbers, as well as high-tech platforms. The forthcoming Global Combat Ship or Type 26 frigate, on which BAE Systems and the MoD are undertaking a four-year development programme, is to be built as a general-purpose frigate, with an eye on the export market. The MoD is in discussion with a number of navies about buying it. ’I see the GCS as being a very capable ship that is also affordable to other countries around the world,’ Ward said.

Type 45 destroyer
F-35 Lightning II

In aerospace, the Eurofighter Typhoon is proving highly capable as a multi-role combat aircraft. The F-35 Lightning II, or joint strike fighter, is entering production. Unmanned aerial vehicles and their associated technology will become increasingly important.

Beyond that will come the genuinely autonomous vehicle, not needing a ground controller but self-contained and able to make its own decisions according to built-in algorithms.

’Autonomous systems are a hugely exciting area, and not just for military applications medical, transport, disaster relief, and many other sectors will be interested,’ Ward said.

For land vehicles, intense development work has been under way to improve protection against roadside bombs for troops in Afghanistan. Looking ahead, attention is turning to the key person in all this: the ordinary soldier. Sophisticated equipment is all very well but soldiers are reaching the limits of how much kit they can carry. Future soldier systems will increasingly need to focus on systems integration: ’We have to reduce the weight that the infantry soldier has to carry,’ said Ward. ’Systems engineering and integration will become more and more important. It’s a highly specialised skill set that we’ve got in this country but we need to sustain the capability.’

The defence industry will continue to need engineering and science skills across the board. John Docherty, business development manager of technical recruitment agency CBSbutler said there has been no let-up in demand. ’From what we’re seeing the demand for talent in the defence sector remains unabated,’ he said. ’The UK still has an acute shortage of engineering professionals and to deliver the complex systems developed in the defence industry it needs talented individuals.’

Experts with experience in specific niches will always be in demand, he added, but the industry has a continuing need to bring people to replace those who retire. Not just graduates, but people with masters’ degrees and PhDs are increasingly in demand.

Regarding disciplines, electronic and electrical engineers are needed, as well as systems specialists and pure physicists and mathematicians. But Docherty said: ’Mechanical engineers are in particularly short supply.’

Ward at ADS Group adds a plea for more apprenticeships. ’This country has lost that band that exists at the technician level.’ He believes countries such as Germany have a better balance between graduates, technicians who came up through the apprentice route and semi-skilled/unskilled workers. The UK has become biased too heavily towards graduates, he argues.

He also has concerns about changes to the education system. ’I sense nervousness in industry that science subjects may be rolled up and provide qualifications that lack the in-depth understanding of the individual discipline. We have to sustain the depth of those subjects to ensure that students are properly prepared for science and engineering courses at universities and are useful to industry when they complete those courses.’

employer focus BAE submarine solutions

Company is on the lookout for professional engineers with experience of large systems projects and relevant work experience

BAE systems Submarine Solutions division is looking to recruit around 200 people to work on the next generation of nuclear deterrent submarines that are currently being designed for the UK Royal Navy.

The majority of these positions are for engineers, including electrical, mechanical and structural engineers, naval architects, nuclear safety engineers, and engineering managers. There are also a number of project management roles available. The company is on the lookout for professional engineers, usually degree qualified in their chosen discipline, and able to become chartered engineers or equivalent with experience of large system projects and relevant work experience.

Commenting on the opportunities available, Brian Hetherington, senior engineering manager, said: ’Seeing one of these hugely impressive vessels take shape from the early design stage to the construction phase is incredibly rewarding, particularly in the knowledge that you’ve played an integral part in an important programme.’

The majority of the roles will be based at BAE’s Barrow-in-Furness shipyard Cumbria, although opportunities also exist on a number of Submarine Solutions’ UK sites. Employees can take advantage of a wide range of corporate and company benefit schemes, as well as a competitive salary and benefits package. There are also discretionary tailored relocation packages on offer.