The Institute of Public Policy Research’s (IPPR’s) report calling for a drastic scaling-back in UK defence expenditure raises some awkward questions for the engineering sector. With many of the country’s largest engineering companies involved in the defence sector to a greater or lesser extent, cutbacks in military hardware are going to hit hard.
Defence projects tend to be a relatively easy target for politicians looking for places to cut spending, as they tend to be expensive and associated with a few, very large chunks of kit. It’s now Liberal Democrat policy to cancel the Trident replacement, for example, and the IPPR’s report also recommends this — instead, it says that the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent should be carried by refitted Vanguard-class submarines. It also raises question marks over the two new aircraft carriers currently on the drawing board at BAE Systems and even over the last few attack submarines in the Astute class. All of these were an integral part of the government’s last defence review, which was updated recently with no recommendation for cuts.
But these are tough economic times. The government is now firmly in ‘run-up to election’ mode and the other parties are preparing their manifestos. Everyone knows that cuts are on their way; figures of 10 per cent in all departments have been bandied around.
There are several ways of looking at the IPPR’s recommendations. From a strategic point of view, many in the defence sector would argue that the proposed fleet of seven Astute-class attack subs is the minimum effective force and that the Trident replacement is an essential component to maintaining Britain’s status in the international community. The case for the carriers includes the huge numbers of jobs the project will require, as well as international trade — and R&D — links with US companies who are co-developing the Joint Strike Fighters that will be launched from them.
It might make financial sense to accept a diminished world role and streamline defence spending accordingly, as the IPPR recommends; but whether the government — of whatever political persuasion — is ready to accept that is another matter. But from the technology point of view, there’s another matter. It’s often said — sometimes regretfully — that the defence sector is an engine of innovation. The technologies being developed today are the basis of the money-spinning product lines of the next decade and not just in the defence sector. To take one example, military aerospace technology is a major contribution to Formula 1 and other motorsports, which then itself spins off into the automotive sector.
Cutting back on defence spending is certainly an easy way to shave billions off public finances — the effect down the line is more difficult to quantify. How far did cutbacks in the 1980s damage Britain’s technological standing today? And how much would we lose, two decades into the future, if we cancel those projects now? It would be difficult to come up with figures, as they would be largely speculation and you can’t build policy on speculation. But it’s something all engineers would doubtless urge politicans to consider.
Stuart Nathan, Special Projects Editor