Professor Keith Hayward, the Royal Aeronautical Society’s Head of Research offers his commentary on a recent Royal Aeronautical Society conference on the future of the UK’s defence aerospace sector.
Yes maybe, yes but, were the tentative conclusions of a Royal Aeronautical Society workshop, held on the 26 June, on trends and prospects for the UK military aerospace industry. There is a growing concern that elements of the UK political and official community are, in the words of one participant, “sleep walking towards a cliff edge”. While there is a short to medium term future with production work either confirmed (Typhoon) or promised (F-35) in the fast jet sector, and a similar position for helicopters, the longer term perspective for core high level design and development competences is less promising.
For some, such as Rolls-Royce and AgustaWestland, increasing demand for civil products will maintain both core skills and fill factories. But without something on which to focus systems integration and high-level avionics development work, the UK military aerospace industry faces a period of ‘hollowing out’. A successful F-35 will help maintain jobs (albeit high quality manufacturing jobs) across a broad swathe of UK industry, but it does not afford the access to high level or ‘noble’ work that was generated by the Typhoon. The gap might be filled to some extent by work on an advanced unmanned combat aircraft and other forms of technology demonstration, without defined requirements, there will be little to satisfy wider industry needs.
Open competition at any price?
There is still reluctance on the part of the UK government to make an unequivocal link between its military needs, defence exports and the survival of an on shore defence industrial base. With open competition still the default MoD’s position, the UK is vulnerable to more integrated (politically and industrially) overseas competitors. This deficiency might also limit Britain’s ability to secure an optimal position in any emerging Anglo-French axis stemming from the recent Treaty on Defence Cooperation.
Working with French industry could be the opportunity to re-launch European defence aerospace industrial cooperation. The French are certainly keen to include Germany and Italy. If this was clearly ‘industry-led cooperation’ that escapes the ‘iron law’ of defined workshare, opportunities for ‘noble work’ for UK industry may be sustained. In passing, the Treaty may also enable further integration of MBDA, one of the few genuine European transnational companies, that has delivered a succession of high quality products based on centres of excellence.
The Royal Aeronautical Society will be developing an official position paper on the future of UK military aerospace, which will be available in the late autumn.
Read Professor Hayward’s incisive analysis of the aerospace industry every month in Aerospace International magazine.