Last week, David Cameron became the first British prime minister in three decades to inaugurate the Farnborough International Airshow. It was a move designed to demonstrate his government’s support for the country’s aerospace and defense industry.
Cameron’s address to a small group of executives, officials and dignitaries was preceded by an overflight by the legendary Vulcan bomber, a pinnacle of British technology, and the Red Arrows — the Royal Air Force Aerobatics Team, which flies the Hawk trainer, a U.K. export success story. The prime minister’s three-pronged message was equally encouraging.
First, he announced the launch of the Aerospace Growth Partnership Strategy to bolster Britain’s 24 billion-pound aerospace sector by improving workforce capabilities in an industry where the U.K. ranks second only to the United States.
The idea had been disclosed last year, but not in detail. That strategy is contained within an overarching 60 million-pound plan to maintain critical aerospace skills, allow skilled workers to be easily shifted among programs or companies, and grow talent for the future.
Second, he asked executives for ideas for a similar approach for the defense industry.
Third, he backed development of an electronically scanned radar for the Typhoon fighter to make the jet more capable and boost its export prospects.
More than a dozen of his ministers from the defense, trade and business, and transport departments were out in force to show the government’s support for industries key to jobs, economic well-being and national security.
It appears to be a welcome shift in policy.
The laissez faire Cameron government had maintained that whenever possible, it would buy available equipment from global markets to quickly and economically meet military needs rather than develop unique equipment at greater cost. The need to cut the nation’s hefty debt has forced deep defense spending cuts and tough calls. The stance was inherently contradictory, which worried British contractors who maintain that if their own government won’t invest in U.K. defense technology, they will find it increasingly difficult to remain as technologically capable as they are today, diminishing not only the nation’s military capabilities but its ability to compete successfully on export markets, losing well-paying and highly skilled jobs in the process.
For the first time, this government appears to realize the link between domestic defense investment and purchases and global export success. Cameron must now convert appealing rhetoric to reality with a change in policy combined with more investment. While the government is fond of explaining that it’s kept defense research-and-development funding from dropping further, it hasn’t committed to increasing it.
With 5.4 billion pounds in global defense export sales, from cutting-edge Eurofighters to work on the Joint Strike Fighter to land and sea systems, Britain ranks as the No. 2 behind the United States — thanks to robust past R&D investment. In 2000, British R&D was 2 billion pounds a year. This year, it’s down to 400 million pounds. In contrast, France spends 700 million euros and the United States a whopping $71.4 billion in its base budget annually.
Britain is harvesting billions in yearly sales critical to its economy thanks to yesterday’s investment. And by investing too little today, the Britain of tomorrow will see the defense sector join other U.K. industries lost for want of investment.
Rees Ward, the chief executive of Britain’s aerospace and defense trade group, ADS, rightly said: Industry doesn’t want government to pick winners, but support them.
Cameron’s government must make hard choices in what to outsource and what to buy from home to deliver the most capability as affordable as possible. It is this openness of the U.K. defense market that has enabled its military to punch well above its weight. But it also must invest far more in technologies and capabilities that support an industry critical to Britain’s security and economy.