In the air and below the sea: UK defence in the spotlight

Jason Ford - News Editor, The EngineerJason Ford,
News editor

This year’s Farnborough International Airshow defied expectations with over $100bn worth of orders and options placed, including $94bn for 856 aircraft and $23bn for 1407 engines.

Away from the deals, last Wednesday afternoon saw Airbus’ A380 seemingly defying gravity to swoop gracefully over the Farnborough show ground, whilst the Eurofighter Typhoon’s take-off was preceded by an awesome clap of thunder that threatened – and failed – to dampen the aircraft’s considerable roar.

Over in Farnborough’s Five building the Typhoon’s UK partner BAE Systems treated assembled media to some “imagineering” that foresees bespoke autonomous aircraft being ‘grown’ in vats currently dubbed ‘chemputers’; an update from Reaction Engines on progress and a timetable for development of the Sabre hybrid rocket engine; and a debrief on the company’s trial of maritime autonomous capabilities, as witnessed recently in the Solent.

The so-called Chemputer could one day provide for relatively quick design, build and deployment of unmanned aerial aircraft, whilst maritime autonomy could help provide persistence at sea that is more suited to machines rather than humans.

It does, however, take decades to deliver military platforms to customers in the armed forces and in that time the nature of warfare and the theatres in which they are fought can change, as can the geopolitical landscape.

Will the UK – as part of NATO – find itself slugging it out in land, sea and air battles, or will the nation’s enemies continue to hide behind civilian clothing to wage guerrilla warfare?

Predictions can be made and contingencies planned for but the big question of the day is whether Britain needs a nuclear deterrent, a motion for which is being debated today in Parliament.

Many argue that Trident – and the non nuclear-armed Astute Class of hunter-killer submarines being built by BAE Systems in Barrow-in-Furness – are relics from the Cold War era and are now irrelevant. Others have opined that today’s motion is a Tory ploy to highlight divisions in the Labour Party. But then there are those who are looking at this question from the perspective of engineering, manufacturing and the talent pipeline that a new fleet of four nuclear-armed ‘Successor-class’ submarines would give the nation.

Successor – the vessel to replace the Royal Navy’s Vanguard subs – would enter service in the 2030s and have an operational life of 30 years. According to EEF, construction and through-life sustainment of the new submarines will support over 30,000 UK jobs and cost £31bn, with £10bn factored in for programme contingency.

While the vessel would not be available for export, equipment and systems on board would be. Furthermore, EEF maintains that the programme will make a major contribution to the development of technologies and techniques – such as sensor systems, command & control systems, plus advanced materials – that can be spun-out to other advanced engineering sectors.

Then there is the argument surrounding the loss of capability if the UK doesn’t progress with the new submarines, which would undo 115 years experience and tradition, or the view that numerous SMEs could be brought into the submarine supply chain for the first time if Successor goes ahead.

Is Trident and the Successor programme a Cold War relic or essential part of our defence capabilities? Let us know below.

From one polarising discussion to another and word that a petition has been started regarding the terms of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. David Robinson helped found the former DTI’s first nanotechnology programme and is director of the nanotech, optical systems and space industry start-up consultancy PSI-Tran. His petition states: “We require any Brexit deal preserves UK access to EU collaborative R&D programs” and interested parties can find out more and sign at this address: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/150220.