We’re good, but not by right

A study for the Society of British Aerospace Companies says that the UK faces some tough choices over which areas of the aerospace industry should be nurtured and which others should effectively be abandoned to their fate.

On the face of it, the UK aerospace industry is in pretty good shape. Take a look inside most of the world’s major aircraft programmes and you are likely to find a pleasing amount of technology and expertise from this country.

In the civilian sector, there is the UK’s major role in Airbus and the success of companies such as Smiths Aerospace, which has secured significant chunks of work on the new Boeing 7E7.

The same goes for military projects, where the UK is regularly involved in leading-edge work in Europe and the US. And, of course, we have a world-class aero-engine supplier in Rolls-Royce.

However, a study for the industry’s own body, the Society of British Aerospace Companies paints a rather more downbeat picture. It says that the UK faces some tough choices over which areas of capability should be nurtured and which others should effectively be abandoned to their fate.

This may, for example, mean losing the UK’s long-cherished ability to design and build a combat aircraft from nose to tail.

The basic problem, apparently, is that some sections of the country’s aero-engineering sector just aren’t up to operating in a ferociously competitive globalised economy.

At the commodity end of the market, there will always be someone who can do a job cheaper. More alarmingly, the notion that the UK’s technical superiority will always give it an edge may be another sacred cow that needs slaughtering.

As the SBAC’s report notes, low-cost sources are increasingly up to providing a hi-tech service alongside the commodity products – ‘the brawn and the brains’ as the report puts it.

This is a hugely important point, and one with implications far beyond the aerospace sector. It has become an article of faith in some quarters that however much production moves to India, China and the rest, companies will still come to the UK when they want things done ‘properly’.

Under this model, we would become a premium supplier of hi-tech innovation and services while the Chinese and the Czechs bash out the commodities.

An alluring vision but one, as the SBAC notes, that is beset with peril. There is a hint of arrogance and a dash of complacency in the assumption that these fast-developing economies are not capable of spawning a hi-tech culture that will be a match for anything here in the UK – or for that matter the US or Germany.

As the aerospace industry is recognising, creating these world-beating pools of expertise will not happen by accident.

A plan is needed and priorities must be set. And any notion of a historic right to occupy the high-ground must be jettisoned.