The Cameron government will be out in force at the Farnborough International Airshow July 9-15 to demonstrate its support for British aerospace and defense industries.
Virtually all of Prime Minister David Cameron’s key ministers from the Departments of Defence, Trade and Investment will attend as the U.K. government seeks to expand exports as domestic spending drops.
The Cameron government, however, cannot mask the fact that it has not put forth much of a defense strategy. Since taking office two years ago, the government has been clinging to its Tory laissez-faire roots, arguing there will be no “handouts” to prop up British contractors.
Government is in the business of fielding the best capability at the lowest cost no matter the origin of the goods, ministers have repeatedly intoned, adding that Britain will eschew major development programs in favor of off-the-shelf gear. British companies must stand on their own, increase exports or expire, they have said.
That’s a nice Tory soundbite, but it doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny when it comes to defense, and has been subject to widespread and justified criticism: Defense isn’t exactly a free market; rather, it is shaped by a government’s security ambitions, needs, spending levels, and domestic and international politics.
Britain’s defense industry, while still a world leader in innovation and technology, is doomed to play a steadily declining role if its own government concludes that whatever it spends won’t be spent with a long-range view of preserving what capability it has left. British industry understandably worries about retaining its edge as its government keeps R&D spending flat while increasingly buying from abroad.
Industry has two vital concerns with this approach. First, the government will reap short-term savings but incur long-term costs in lost competitiveness and good-paying jobs. Second, U.K. firms will have trouble selling their wares globally when their home government won’t buy their kit just to save a few pennies on the pound.
But it appears the government is starting to appreciate the importance of defense and aerospace to British manufacturing, says Robin Southwell, the EADS UK chief and president of Britain’s defense and aerospace trade group, ADS.
It’s not clear if MoD shares the same view given recent statements by its officials.
Meanwhile, declining spending across Europe is setting ideal conditions for a new era of cross-border collaboration, as leading defense nations struggle to field capabilities to match their security ambitions. (Last week, France said it would cut defense spending as Paris struggles to rein in debt and contribute to pan-European economic recovery efforts.)
A senior French defense official agreed, but also offered the caveat that European defense isn’t about 27 countries; it depends on the commitment of a few. He didn’t say it, but two of them are Britain and France, which remain committed to their bilateral defense treaty, as well as Italy and to a lesser extent, Germany.
If Britain is going to have a seat at that table, it must invest strategically in its defense and aerospace industries. not merely to preserve jobs, but to remain a technologically and industrially capable element of the nation’s otherwise atrophied manufacturing sector, and to underpin London’s ability to militarily punch above its weight.
If Cameron wants to show his government’s commitment to those at Farnborough, he should use the show as an opportunity to unveil a growth plan for defense that mirrors the civil aerospace initiative adopted to bolster Britain’s commercial aviation sector.