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Interview: Philip Dunne

UK Defence Equipment, Support and Technology Minister

Jul. 12, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
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Philip Dunne is the UK's minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology.
Philip Dunne is the UK's minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology. (UK Ministry of Defence)
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Budget restrictions, a war in Afghanistan, capability gaps and a departmental transformation effort unprecedented in recent years could have made the post as Britainís minister for defense equipment, support and technology unusually testing, as well as complex, during the almost two years since Philip Dunne was appointed.

As itís turned out, by British standards ó increased aircraft carrier costs aside ó the procurement issues have been relatively benign and Dunne has earned good marks for balancing the needs of his department with those of the industry that helps support it.

Probably the most high-profile procurement program of his watch, aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy, successfully entered a new phase July 4 with the launch of the first of two warships being built by the BAE Systems-led alliance.

The jobís had its moments, though. It wasnít Dunneís fault, but the collapse of the Ministry of Defenceís flagship transformation plan to turn the running of the MoDís equipment procurement and support arm over to industry was a setback ó albeit one that was privately welcomed by many in the department.

Q. What is Britain looking for out of the F-35 global sustainment program being proposed by Lockheed Martin and the US government?

A. Itís early days, but we are in early-stage discussion with other European F-35 users on sustainment capability cooperation.

We will be the principle European user of the F-35B short-takeoff, vertical-landing variant so those things specific to that version will most likely need to be done here.

Overall, we are currently most focused on training and low observability. There will be plenty of scope for different users to specialize in elements of the sustainment package from training through to airframes, low observability, propulsion and avionics.

Q. Have your talks focused on any particular European F-35 user?

A. We have had discussions with Norway, who will also be receiving planes at a similar tempo to ourselves. The Italians are talking to us as well.

In relation to Norway we have had some very positive meetings from the defense secretary level down on training and other issues. I saw the Norwegian state secretary here last month and officials are working up options and alternatives. We are looking to achieve some definition around the end of the year.

That wonít be contracts, but just being clearer about the direction in which the main user nations are going.

Q. The UK government axed its maritime patrol aircraft capability in 2010 but has since committed to reconsider the issue in the 2015 strategic defense and security review [SDSR]. Have recent geopolitical and maritime events given you cause to speed up a decision?

A. Itís fair to say there is increased interest in finding a solution by SDSR 2015. This is quite a high priority and we are keen to see the outcome of the [Royal Air Force-led] air optimization study, which will inform decision making.

Q. Maritime patrol aircraft ó or more likely a multirole aircraft ó is expensive. If money were not a big issue you would probably go for Boeingís P-8. The UKís been innovative in acquiring capability in the past. How flexible might you be for this requirement?

A. We are very excited about Air Seeker [the UK version of the Rivet Joint signals intelligence aircraft] capability coming into service. We found that being interoperable with the users club [the US Air Force] resulted in efficiency gains to be derived from operating a platform in tandem with others, so that is definitely something that might inform any decision.

We are very open-minded to look at opportunities. Once we have determined a requirement, we would look at alternative ways of fulfilling it.

Q. Has Boeing or the US government approached you yet and suggested leasing or some other mechanism?

A. The MoD is approached on a daily basis on a wide range of procurement opportunities, so we discuss all sorts of potential equipment needs with industry and allies.

Q. Britain launched the first of two new aircraft carriers July 4. As things stand, SDSR will decide whether the second warship goes into operation or is mothballed. Whatís the departmentís current view?

A. Itís really a Royal Navy decision. With the capability procured, itís a matter of crewing and sustainment.

I know the First Sea Lord [the head of the Royal Navy, Adm. Sir George Zambellas] has expressed his preference for two carriers, as has [Defence Secretary Philip Hammond], but it will be up to the Royal Navy to find the budget to be able to crew two vessels for rotating deployment. Itís an operating expense rather than a capital expense. The issue is not to have two carriers on station at one time but to enable a continuous presence.

Q. What sort of strategic defense and security review are we expecting next time ó a touch on the tiller, or something more dramatic given the 2010 review was driven by budgets?

A. I donít accept your premise the 2010 SDSR was entirely driven by the numbers. We hadnít had a review for 13 years so we started with the threat assessment.

In the intervening four years since 2010 the threats have changed. The next SDSR will start with a refresh of the threat assessment. We will then be looking at the limited opportunities for filling some acknowledged capability gaps to meet these threats.

I do not expect it to be as comprehensive as 2010 in terms of the range of decisions taken. Our current planning assumption in relation to equipment is for a 1 percent real increase in the equipment plan beyond 2015.

Q. How close are you to making a production commitment to an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar on the Eurofighter Typhoon combat jet.

A. Iím very pleased that at Farnborough we will have a Typhoon with a development AESA radar fitted. It will be the first time we will have one on show.

Itís a signal of the work industry has been doing to help bring this capability forward. I remain hopeful we will get a contract in place by the end of this year. There remains a strong enthusiasm from the partner nations to develop the capability.

Q. Would you say something similar about the plans to integrate more weapons on the Typhoon jet to make it fully multirole?

A. We have a road map involving a regular drumbeat of enhancements we would like to bring on, and we will. It is absolutely our intent to have the weapons available ahead of the retirement of the Tornado strike jet.

Q.The Chief of the Defence Staff [Gen. Sir Nicholas Houghton] has warned of British forces being hollowed out with insufficient numbers of skilled personnel to operate the exotic equipment now being purchased. Is the requirement to fix recruitment likely to see the equipment budget raided for any further budget cuts?

A. These would be decisions for SDSR 2015, but only if there is then a perception that some adjustment was necessary.

At the moment I donít see that happening. Certainly I would be keen to fight the corner for equipment as we have a clear plan of further capability requirements to fund.

Q. We are on the countdown to an election in May 2015. What are your priorities between now and then?

A. We are working hard on a number of programs to see if we can get on contract or get program approval ahead of the election.

In the land domain there are the Scout and Warrior armored vehicle programs we would like to make some progress on.

In the maritime domain there is the Astute nuclear submarine program, where we are looking to make progress with Boat 5. On the surface warship side we shall maintain pressure to deliver the aircraft carriers. There are also the three offshore patrol vessels where we have recently contracted for long lead items, and we look to progress the Type 26 frigate program.

More generally, negotiations are at an advanced stage on bringing in an outsourcing partner on the departmentís Logistic Commodities and Service Transformation program. Iím hoping to secure an agreement by the end of the year, although it probably wonít be effective until the start of the next financial year.

The transformation of the Defence Equipment and Support procurement organization into a new bespoke trading entity is making good progress. We have gone out to tender for packages of private-sector support and getting those contracted is an important priority.

In addition we are in active talks with some very credible potential partners for the sale of the Defence Support Group [DSG], and we are looking at entering into a long-term leasing arrangement with a private-sector entity for the Marchwood military port facility near Southampton for combined military-civil use. Thatís at an earlier stage of the process than the DSG sale but we are looking to achieve an agreement before the election. ■

By Andrew Chuter in London.

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