Last week the Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson announced to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee that, based on a clear need to a map out future defence industrial strategy requirements in order that the UK can maintain a long-term position for the UK in combat air capability, the Government intends to develop a combat air strategy. This decision is one that I am sure the vast majority of those in the wider defence community will welcome and they will, as I do, see this as being fundamental to the long term future of the UK defence industry and of course, for maintaining future sovereign capability.
To be launched in the summer and, as far as I am aware without discussion, likely to take in all matters relating to anticipated forward military requirements together with important issues raised by the UK defence industrial base in respect of the need to ensure sovereign capability [including emerging technologies and defence exports] the announcement by the Secretary of State is excellent news indeed.
Without wishing to pre-judge, I believe that if this review process is done with honesty and integrity over the next year and if its eventual central recommendations can be acted upon in the spirit intended, what occurred last week can be seen as a potential game-changer in the attitude of government to defence and particularly, in respect of maintaining UK sovereign capability and in recognition of the importance of the defence industrial base. So much so in fact, that I can regard this review process as being maybe the last chance opportunity to position the UK to remain a significant player in the global defence industry.
Apart from military considerations and enabling the MOD to have a far better medium and longer terms understanding of operational capability requirement, the central aim of the planned strategy is I believe to be based on securing the long term future of sovereign capability for the development and build of future combat air requirement by the UK.
Albeit it somewhat behind recognition by our French and German competitors, recognising the need to secure thousands of highly skilled jobs and of how the UK defence industrial base has time and time again risen to the challenge of providing the MOD with brilliant kit, the presentation of the combat air strategy plan is very timely.
Important too is that the Defence Secretary said words to the effect that the intent of the planned combat air strategy will be to provide an opportunity for large companies such as Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems and many others “to have a real say in how we develop a [combat air] strategy going forward. If the deed does prove to be as good as the word then for the first time since Lord [Paul] Drayson’s excellent yet sadly ‘still born’ defence industrial strategy of 2005/6, we may at last be onto something.
Mr. Williamson also used the combat air strategy announcement opportunity to emphasise that the MOD and Government wants to build a close collaboration with industry to ensure that we have the [right] technology. Giving evidence to HCDC, he said that “the strategy will set out the UK’s future requirements in this important area and seek to secure an enduring and strategic relationship with UK industry”
With the French and German Governments joining forces on the proposed development of a next generation of fast jet capability that is designed to eventually replace Eurofighter Typhoon, it is imperative that not only does the UK ensure that it is not left behind and remains at the forefront of high-end airpower technology and innovation but also that the UK protects what we still have and supports the still high level of sovereign capability that most agree will be required in order for the UK to maintain control over its own destiny.
In a fast changing world we all know deep down that in order to ensure that we can continue to produce, operate and maintain strong air power capability is of paramount importance in the context of UK defence. We know too that the level of threats that we face continues to grow and that while defence is vital for a nation such as ours it must also be affordable.
The hope is that when the combat air strategy is completed and that it has been agreed by MOD, military and industry alike that the Treasury and Cabinet office support it as opposed to putting obstacles to progress in the way. What Mr. Williamson has now announced in respect of the Combat Air Strategy review process and that comes on the back of similarly scaled reviews in relation to military shipbuilding and the UK industrial base as a whole is something that should have been done several years ago.
Sceptics may well see the announcement from the Secretary of State for Defence as yet another review that buys time but in my view, such is the seriousness and plight of the UK defence industrial base, I can and do believe that at long last the Government is beginning to recognise that once sovereign manufacturing capability is lost in the UK it is virtually impossible to restart or replicate.
The Secretary of State for Defence can certainly be assured that, despite concerns of there being no date set for completion of the future combat air strategy document and that the process will not even begin until the summer of this year, that he and all those involved will receive the full support of industry. Clearly, the combat air strategy will from the outset recognise that, unlike the military shipbuilding industry, in order to reduce both risk and cost, fast military jet aircraft capability is most usually developed within an international partnership.
Those partnerships, past and present and that have led to fine aircraft developments such as Sepecat Jaguar, Panavia Tornado, Eurofighter Typhoon and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter demonstrate industries ability to be flexible, dynamic and produce aircraft that in their respective generations were or continue to be world leading capability.
The UK is already in partnership with Turkey in the form of BAE Systems collaboration (with TAI) on the development of an indigenous stealth fighter (TF-X) for the Turkish Air Force and Rolls-Royce is partnered in the same programme with the Turkish industrial group Kale in developing the engine. And while Germany and France are partnered in researching and discussing the possibilities of a joint military combat aircraft that for them might eventually replace Eurofighter Typhoon, the UK under the Lancaster House agreement continues to be partnered with France on the development of an unmanned air-combat vehicle demonstrator.
Collaboration will I am sure remain an important part of the future combat air strategy requirement and rightly so. The same applies to land systems and while warships and submarines for the Royal Navy are built only in the UK, the equipment that is used to fit them out and provide the operational capability is often the result of international partnerships and collaboration.
The bottom line is that although the UK defence industrial base has suffered to an extent by the requirement for fewer numbers of fast jets compared to requirements of forty years ago we must ensure that we maintain required levels of sovereign capability that can meet our own potential needs, that we continue to invest in research and technology development and that the Government provides sufficient support for defence exports.
The latter in respect of future combat air strategy is hugely important and it needs to allow for government to government agreements and to provide the full offer of training for potential customer air forces. The Government does appear to getting the message of the need to do government to government deals if we are to win military combat aircraft and other defence exports but it seems to me to be woefully inadequate in understanding that it will need to double the amount of fast jet training capability investment if we are to meet the needs of the Royal Air Force and potential export customers who wish to procure equipment from us.
Despite the above, last week was good for UK defence and it set out a highly important new standard of recognition by the MOD that combat air needs a forward strategy and that the UK needs to wake up and value the importance of sovereign capability. No one is suggesting that the UK should go it alone or take massive new and unsustainable risks but it is saying that if a small nation like Sweden can do it then so can we.
CHW (London – 26th February 2018)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785