Having spent around 25 years in two separate spells as Senior Press Officer at what used to be the Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO) and that today, having sadly been allowed to be watered down by successive governments, known as DIT UK Defence and Security Exports, it is sad to record hear that the one and only remaining link, Adam Thomas, between the good times when DESO was a highly regarded, prominent and very successful UK defence equipment export support organisation and the situation that exists today, Adam Thomas left DIT UK Defence & Security last week.
Always bounding with energy, idea and enthusiasm and with unsurpassed experience of supporting ministers, senior military and industry participants at defence exhibitions all over the world, Adam had an amazing ability to work with everyone he came into contact with in order to support, encourage and motivate them, including international military delegations and specialist press, Whilst senior members of the company clearly di the most important work It often appears that Adam Thomas did everything else. He always understood the value of establishing strong relations with specialist journalists in all the countries he regularly visited.
Having spent 40 years as a civil servant, visited over 60 nations internationally, supported no few that 30 Ministers, 7 ‘Heads’ of DESO, worked his socks off with very little thanks, the departure of Adam Thomas effectively ends what has, over my own long career, been one of the most constant links I have enjoyed, respected and just occasionally, torn my hair out. Adam worked hard and he played hard too but my goodness, this many achieved so much in his career at DESO and the subsequent organisations that it became.
Sad to say that while DESO was once highly respected internationally for how it had set about supporting industry to win export work for Britain and I might here, was an organisation that until Baroness Shriti Vadera persuaded Gordon Brown that it was no longer shall we say ‘politically correct’ was an all-but self-supporting organisation – in other words the success it brought justified the costs hands down!
DESO not only encouraged and assisted hundreds of UK companies engaged in producing defence and security related equipment – large and small – to not only look at export as a potential to grow their businesses but also in helping them understand the very necessary and often complicated regulated processes that an industry such as this needs to go through in order to ensure defence equipment exported was going into the right hands. The UK has some of the strictest regulations to be found that are designed to ensure the process is done in accordance with the law,
Having responsibility in DESO for external communications meant attending meetings in MOD Main Building, Number 10, Treasury and Cabinet Office being briefed by ministers and civil servants and then coming back to brief his own ministers and teams working within the organisation. It was necessary to be all call all hours of day and weekend should press reports point to an issue or need to put things right. I have no doubt that in the process Adam has upset or annoyed many a minister or senior military officer but that is all part of the political game played out to secure success.
Not surprisingly, Adam Thomas is very well known across the defence industry and as already mentioned, particularly so within the highly regarded international specialist trade press. To that end, during his long career, Adam has supported over 4,000 interviews held at exhibitions all over the world, assisted well in excess of 400 UK companies to succeed in their export mission, assisted with the 2014 NATO Summit in Wales during which he arranged in the region of 100 plus media interviews each day, played a very important role supporting Larkhill Barracks based DESO and what is now DIT UK Defence & Security, military exhibition team whose primary work is to assist UK companies displaying and demonstrating equipment at international exhibitions.
Adam Thomas has in my estimation travelled to well over 150 international defence exhibitions through his career, supported in excess of 80 export campaigns including US101 presidential helicopter team in the USA and which as a partnership between UK AgustaWestland/Lockheed Martin had initially won this exciting competition only for it to later be scrapped by the Obama administration. As I have done myself on this and many others, Adam Thomas worked hard on many other big campaigns such as CSAR-X, Hawk Trainer aircraft and Typhoon fast jet plus numerous maritime campaigns Including Type 26 in Australia and Canada. In short, day in and day out, whilst not without the odd fault (but then who is?) Adam Thomas has worked all the hours godsend to build relationships, to work for those that the late Denis Healey created DESO for in 1966, and to support and help win more defence export orders for the UK.
I have had the pleasure of working with Adam nationally and on several large international campaigns over the years and it has always been a pleasure. Be these in the Gulf Region, the US or Continental Europe, Adam has always been fun and an absolute delight to work with e several visits to the US and Gulf Region in support of important UK export campaigns and he has always been a delight to work with.
And what about what was DESO and is now DIT UK Defence & Security? I don’t know is the answer but what I do know is that it takes years of hard work, experience and determination in order to build the relationships needed in order to win.
With DESO having been removed from direct MOD responsibility to that of UK Trade and Industry in 2008, later becoming part of UKTI Defence & Security Group and subsequently, to its current DIT (Department of International Trade) UK Defence and Security Exports, my own feeling is that dramatically slimmed down, the new organisation has lost so much of its former gravitas and lack sufficient military and senior industry involvement within it.
While it is equally true to save that there has been a better attempt to revive it under the present ‘Head’ and we are seeing a slightly less silent effort from Government to boost defence and security exports, I do not yet see this being prioritised in the manner that it deserves to be despite our just about managing to hold on to 4th position in the list of international defence equipment exporters.
Today the organisation is but a shadow of its former self. For instance, back in 2006/7 DESO had an operating budget of around £51 million, this being largely covered by income received from customer governments, leaving a mere £16 million to be provided by the UK Government. Back then it has over 450 staff engaged supporting the potential for UK defence exports and DESO personnel could be found working in many international countries within a highly successful regional organisations and working closely with embassy staff and military attaches.
DESO was a highly successful formula in its time and one that was envied by many of our government competitors such as the US, France and Australia – these being amazed when the Labour Government under Gordon Brown sort to disestablish DESO by moving it away from the Ministry of Defence. Withered on the vine it certainly has because of a thousand cuts but not quite done yet. Let us hope that soon we may see a reversal of recent attitudes by government and witness some real investment going into DIT UK Defence and Security Exports, increasing capacity, bringing in of experienced and knowledgeable professionals who know industry both at home and internationally, who understand what it needs to compete, who have the ability to listen to what the company wants rather than telling them what they can have. WE also need to reverse the culture in DESO that has driven so many small and medium sized companies away because since the big change in 2009, they have to pay to receive the vital help that they require.
Former DESO Heads such as Charles Masefield and Alan Garwood commanded huge international respect and had been particularly successful during their respective periods in office. Richard Paniguian was also successful in a rather different way and because he knew his way around Whitehall particularly well but it was during his era that any individual power that the Heads of the organisation diminished.
The last few years have not been easy for Adam Thomas and you may say that the face of energy, enthusiasm, can-do, will-do approach is no longer wanted. If so, that is a great pity but ‘to be honest’ the one person I am not worried about is Adam Thomas – he will continue to do all that he has done before and motivate others in the process.
BATTLESPACE Comment: We endorse every word that Howard has written. I have had the pleasure of working with Adam for many years supporting numerous SMEs across the world at various events and at DSEI. His boundless energy and knowledge will be sorely missed.
CHW (London – 17th December 2021)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785