Fox speech overlooks defence spend issue

Stuart Nathan

Features Editor

The rumblings of large jet engines are still echoing over Hampshire, as the industrial section of the Farnborough Air Show reaches its mid-point. At this stage in the event, nobody could mistake it for the family-friendly spectacle it becomes at the weekend; this is the big chance for the aerospace sector — and its close cousin, the defence sector — to make its voice heard.

Of course, it’s also a chance for others to talk to the industry and the UK’s new defence secretary, Liam Fox, hasn’t wasted the chance to make his presence felt. In between congratulating defence companies for their contribution to the UK’s economy and their importance to national security, he outlined the government’s big idea for reining in defence spending, in line with its ‘Age of Austerity’ savings drive.

According to Fox, defence strategy has depended too long on ‘planning for the best case scenario and then hoping that the worst never happens.’ His planning would include ‘maritime-enabled power projection’ — code for aircraft carriers and submarine-launched nuclear missiles, surely — along with ‘the capacity to control air space to guarantee freedom of manouevre and the ability to deploy land power.’

So, we’re still going to have an army, navy and air force. Thanks for making that clear, Dr Fox.

However, Fox also called for the industry to put its thinking cap on. In return for the government supporting defence exports through its licensing system, reforming the acquisition process and bringing in an audited 10-year ‘planning horizon’, he said that ‘we need to make a conceptual leap and develop new capabilities that help us stay ahead of our opponents, particularly when faced with an asymmetric threat.’ Radar, he said, forced a change in the way war was waged in the air during World War II and a similar ‘tranformative innovation’ was needed for the 21st century.

Well, there’s nothing like a vague aspiration to set people thinking. A transformative innovation that will change the way that armed forces operate and will help in asymmetric warfare. And it has to be cheap. Answers on a postcard to L Fox, MD, Whitehall.

In line with the recent wave of defence-industry technology thinking, any tranformative technology is likely to come from the application of commercial, off-the-shelf (COTS) systems to the military. COTS systems have already helped to shave millions of pounds off project costs, mainly by reducing the need to invest in development and testing of new technology. It’s not difficult to imagine, for example, the latest developments in Earth observation being re-tasked from studying natural phenomena for evidence of climate change to watching for telltale signs of enemy movements, while adapted versions of GPS and broadband telecoms keep troops aware the positions of their comrades and of potential threats.

While Fox’s speech will, no doubt, be welcomed for its support of the defence sector, it reveals little about the government’s concrete plans. This is hardly surprising, as defence was one of the biggest areas of divergence between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Moreover, debate is doubtless raging fiercely over where the axe will fall in the latest Strategic Defence and Security Review. But it does seem that the government is expecting new thinking from the defence sector — innovation, not upgrades. Is the sector ready to make that sort of leap, especially in light of defence R and T spend dropping 12 per cent in 2009?