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UK DEFENCE – OF PEOPLE, STUPIDITY AND MYTHS By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.


typh02 Jun 15. Blaming the UK defence industry as the reason why France is able to afford a much greater level of defence capacity in terms of manpower and equipment than the United Kingdom is a quite ridiculous statement to make.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph yesterday a certain Lewis Page who I had never heard of until yesterday and I believe at some had previously been in the Royal Navy made a number of ridiculous assertions that quite frankly border somewhere in-between the stupid and completely naïve.

While I am loathed to oil the wheels of this particular individuals publicity machine I feel that because the article makes a number of damaging and incorrect assertions that border on the dangerous I have little choice but to list some of the point made in this article and to answer to them. Below are some of the contentions made in the article by Mr. Page:

‘The reason why France is able to have more capability is due to the nature of the British defence industry. ‘Dominated by BAE Systems, he suggests, the British arms industry is ‘lamentably inefficient’, creating products that are ‘horrifyingly expensive’.

‘No independence is gained from buying ‘British-made’ kit such as Eurofighter, as it still cannot be sold without American permission because of the fact it uses American technology.

‘Britain should just buy ‘off the shelf’ which would allow it to afford powerful forces’

It gets worse because he then moves on to talk about the new Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers being built for the Royal Navy:

‘The fitting of catapults to the new aircraft carriers is an example of these [UK defence industry] inefficiencies suggesting that ‘despite the option to add catapults being specified before the carriers were designed, actually fitting them would have had a huge impact on cost. Because of this, the catapults were cancelled, which prevented the ships from using leased American F-18 jets.


‘If it had been possible to use ‘inexpensive’ F-18s, ‘nobody would have bothered using Eurofighters for anything, as a result BAE Systems would have missed out on many billions in support and upgrades.’

‘BAE’ must have been very happy when the shipyards submitted their enormous quote’ to add catapults to the vessels, but not surprised because BAE owns the shipyards’.

‘The way ahead is clear: Let most of the UK arms businesses go to the wall.’

My Reply:

Far from being inefficient the truth is that the UK defence industry is extremely efficient and as various ‘term of business agreements’ made between industry and the MOD customer substantial taxpayer money has been saved. Industry has been incentivised to make saving and there is no doubt that it has delivered in spades.

Three further points on this. Firstly, I note that Mr. Page makes no mention or criticism of the customer MOD and of how some of the largest and most costly problems faced by the defence industrial base on build programmes over the years are because the customer either kept on changing specifications or pushed the whole process back and back.

Secondly I note that Page makes no reference to the inefficiencies of the MOD that Lord Levene of Portsoken was charged with sorting out in 2010 and that led to significant defence reforms. So the defence industry is to blame for MOD inefficiency is it Mr Page?

Thirdly, that defence procurement was in an absolute mess can hardly be doubted and that is why Bernard Gray was, following his original exposure of just how bad the problem was back in 2009, that he was put in charge of sorting out DE&S. Gray is not popular with everyone of course but in my view he has brought about significant change and brought in experienced people. While I may not like all the specific elements of change in so far as they impact on industry and I might sometimes question whether they fully understand armed forces military capability requirements in terms of capacity we are I believe much the better for the work that has so far been done at DE&S.

The assertion by Page that no-independence is gained from buying ‘British-made kit such as Eurofighter Typhoon because it cannot be sold without permission of the Americans is as ridiculous as it is also untrue. Sure, in terms of exports and because there are some US built components in Typhoon certain permission are required but never once have they been refused.

Page says that Britain should just buy ‘off the shelf’ which would allow it to afford powerful forces. We do buy off-the shelf of course and have long done so. But before answering such a ridiculous statement let me remind that if we scrapped the UK defence industry we would lose vital engineering skills that could never be replaced. Is it right that a nation that is arguably the sixth largest economy in the world would not be able to build a military vessel, aircraft or land vehicle?

Comparing us with France and where the people fully understand the level of threat posed by adversaries is very misleading. Like the French the British have also been brought up to expect the state to provide far more than it should. But unlike the French, the British Government sees Defence as a cost as opposed to being the first and overriding consideration of Government.

The same is true in the difference between how the French Government gets behind its defence industry and helps it win big contracts abroad. Here in Britain political correctness rules meaning that we do quite the opposite of the French Government. They listen to the customer and are ready, eager and willing to win business by doing Government to Government deals.

The Treasury would also lose out on large scale tax receipts, 300,000 direct and indirect jobs would go not to mention a sharp and very visible rise would be seen in the balance of trade figures.

There are two other reasons why this statement is dangerous and wrong. The first is that we would become totally reliant on the US. What would happen if and when they said no to a weapons request? How far down would we be on the priority list and in terms of sovereign capability would we have sufficient through-life permissions?

What evidence does Mr Page have I wonder to make him believe that UK defence kit is actually more expensive than the so-called buy-off-the shelf method? OK, I agree that there are plenty of examples where the original equipment cost might well be cheaper if we had bought from the US but we should not ignore, as Mr. Page seems to do, the fact that through life costs of so-called ‘off-the-shelf’ products may be twice if not three times higher.

Page goes on to talk about the decision not to design in catapult and arrester gear onto the QE2 carriers at the original stage. Here I can at least agree in part that we should have designed CATS and TRAPS in right from the start of the original design. But the rest of what he said was nonsense. Retrofitting CATS and TRAPS which was always a stupid idea because of the massive risk involved would potentially have cost up to £3bn. That is why the Coalition Government backtracked. As I have previously recounted, when I was on-board the Nimitz class carrier USS George HW Bush in 2011 I was personally taken aside into a large room by the formidable Vice Admiral Nora W Tyson, then commander of Carrier Strike Group Two and who is I believe currently Deputy Commander, US Fleet Forces Command. I was then placed me in front of three senior officers who laid out detailed diagrams of our new carriers and who then worked hard to convince me that, quite apart from risk and cost, if we attempted to retrofit CATS and TRAPS onto our carriers we would lose a considerable amount of deck space. The plan worked and I then did what my profession calls on me to do and raised the issue back home.

There are two other important points to make on this subject. The first is that had we gone down the expensive route of retrofitting CATS and TRAPS the intention was that we would not have acquired a steam based system such as we had on HMS Ark Royal 1V until she was  decommissioned in 1978 but for a US built electronic based system called EMALS. I’ll spare you the detail but suffice to say that EMALS is STILL under test on one US Navy carrier and I am reliably told that as yet it has not proven itself. If so, all that I can say is thank heavens we didn’t go down that route as £3bn might well have become £4bn by now and worse, the Carriers might well have been delayed by another two years or more.

Like everyone else I agree entirely that the Boeing F/A-18 Hornet would have been an excellent aircraft to acquire for the Carrier Strike Role had we designed in CATS and Traps from the start. But we did not do that and thus the F-35 ‘B’ STOVL Joint Strike Fighter variant will do the job just as well. Of course I agree with the innuendo that we are being rather slow at ordering the plane. I agree too that, assuming rumours might well be correct, and that initially at least we end up with just 24 aircraft rather than the currently pre-supposed number of 48 signalled by the Government after SDSR 2010 (and that I would remind was originally intended to be three times that number) leaves me almost speechless.

Page contends that the Boeing F/A-18’s, a superb piece of military fast jet aircraft capability and which I know that the MOD did look at the possibility of acquiring, are cheaper that Eurofighter Typhoon. Part of the reason for that is that when you are producing an aircraft that although significantly further developed since it first entered service back in 1983 and that have been produced in their thousands means that there is bound to be a huge element of cost saving ability and scope. But it is hugely important in my view that we retain sovereign capability and while I accept that we have sometimes made our case for selling Typhoon to foreign nations worse by failing to embrace government to government arrangement and by delaying investment in weapons systems and radar it is crucial that we retain the ability and the necessary skills to design and produce our own defence capability.

That we have sometimes failed and been our own worst enemy in defence procurement can hardly be argued. We delay and delay and we cut the numbers and cut them again and in doing so we push up the cost. But we make great equipment and our military have benefitted from our maintaining sovereign capability.

Postings on the website of The Aviation Forum list a number of views and opinions from others about Mr. Lewis Page. It is well worth a read.


For my part I will always defend maintaining sovereign capability and while I readily accept that industry has made mistakes in the past we get what we pay for. Our defence industrial base does a brilliant job in very difficult circumstances. Planning ahead is made all the more difficult by fear of further defence cuts and uncertainty that prevails. The grass always looks greener on the other side meaning that buying off-the-shelf can be made to look so easy. But when the decision has been made and hidden through life costs are added back in the situation can look very different.

Do I really want our military to have to rely on all equipment be acquired from abroad as Mr. Page appears to be saying that he would? No thank you. There is a balance of course and there is a percentage of defence equipment capability that we will always need to buy from abroad. The Lockheed Martin C-130J, Boeing Chinook and Apache Helicopters are three perfect such examples of aircraft and rotary design capability that we could not replicate ourselves. And having given up manufacturing commercial aircraft all those years ago Airbus Voyager which we use today either to transport or as an air to air refuelling aircraft is yet another capability that we have acquired from abroad.

The final thought to remember is that as the UK is a tier one partner on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme 15% of the aircraft is made here in the UK. Mr. Page conveniently ignores what else the likes of BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and others do on international aircraft programmes. He mocks Typhoon but I guess he does not understand the capability or the superb level of reliability and efficiency that the aircraft has brought to the air forces that use it.

CHW (London 2nd June 2015)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS


Tel: 07710 779785


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