Buying Uncle Sam

There are faint echoes of the cry that launched the American War of Independence in the news that two of our most significant technology companies are building their positions across the Atlantic.


‘The British are coming! The British are coming!’ There are faint echoes of the legendary cry that launched the American War of Independence in the news that two of our most significant technology companies are building their positions across the Atlantic.


Qinetiq showed it means business in the US when it crossed the pond for the first time to buy engineering technology companies Westar and Foster-Miller.


BAE Systems, meanwhile, slapped more than £300m on the table for DigitalNet, a major provider of secure networks.


The common factor? All three purchases have strong links with the US military and homeland security sectors that both BAE and Qinetiq have made no secret of coveting.


Of course, things have changed since the time of the Redcoats and the Boston Tea Party. These days the Brits are very much the junior partner in the global superpower stakes, while the US reaches ever greater heights of military technological supremacy. The War of Independence wouldn’t be much of a contest now.


But the ambitions of those such as Qinetiq and BAE raises the intriguing prospect of more engineering teams that are ultimately under UK ownership intimately involved with the US military and security infrastructure.


Of course, the UK and US have co-operated on NATO projects for many years, but this is different. The hundreds of billions spent at the very heart of the operation are there for the US first, second and third. Even the UK, its self-styled closest ally, is an alien presence.


Greater involvement will pose a series of questions for businesses and governments on both sides of the Atlantic. The US, notoriously nervous about foreign involvement in its military research, will want to be sure its secrets stay that way. This is unlikely to be a problem – the defence industry is used to building walls of classification around projects.


And with the likes of BAE and Qinetiq the Americans will feel they are among friends. Both have strong corporate links with the US, and BAE has regularly been tipped as a merger partner for a US defence giant.


In truth, the US will be happy to see the UK involved if the relationship brings the technological know-how it believes is vital to win the War on Terror, War on Drugs and sundry other ‘wars’ the nation is engaged in.


It is also obvious what the UK’s defence and technology companies see in the US. For BAE, for example, it must look like a land of golden opportunity compared to the dogfights over major projects it faces with the MoD at home.


The UK government, on the other hand, may view the defence industry’s transatlantic ambitions with a vague sense of unease. Though good for UK plc in the short term, it may get the sense that another strand of the country’s technological know-how is slowly being absorbed into the globalised ether.


For when it comes to the US military, the brass nameplate on the door might be British, but Uncle Sam will always call the shots.