LONDON — Britain is to map out an industrial strategy to maintain long-term combat air capabilities, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson told the parliamentary Defence Committee during a hearing.
“The strategy will examine the operational capability needed in the future and the skills and resource required to deliver it. The work will take new and emerging technology into account, as well as export potential, whilst testing British industry’s ability to deliver our future requirements. It is expected to be launched in the summer,” the Ministry of Defence said in a statement.
Williamson told lawmakers that Defence Procurement Minister Guto Bebb was meeting BAE Systems executives on Feb. 21 to discuss the strategy initiative.
“We want to use this as an opportunity for some of our world beaters, whether it be BAE, Rolls-Royce and others, to have a real say in how we develop the strategy going forward. We want to build a close collaboration with industry to ensure we have the [right] technology,” Williamson said.
“The strategy will set out the U.K.’s future requirements in this important area and seek to secure an enduring and strategic relationship with U.K. industry,” the defense secretary told the committee.
That was a view endorsed by Paul Everitt, the head of ADS, the British defense and aerospace lobby organization.
“The announcement signals the vital need for industry and government to work together to ensure the U.K. remains a world-leading military air power and a highly competitive and capable option in the export market,” Everitt said. “The strategic threats faced by the U.K. and its international partners and allies require long-term thinking and close collaboration between industry and government.”
The decision on whether to launch an air-combat industry strategy was given renewed urgency last year after BAE announced big job losses in its military air sector in the face of declining work on the Typhoon fighter and Hawk trainer jet.
The decision to roll out an air-combat strategy follows on the heels of a similar move by the government last year in adopting a road map for the future of the naval shipbuilding sector. Defense industrial policy was also updated last year.
The decisions made in the air-combat strategy will be fundamental in determining the future of Britain’s industry, according to Doug Barrie, the senior air analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank.
“The outcome will be crucial in deciding whether U.K. remains in the combat-air business at the industrial level beyond building the Eurofighter Typhoon and eventually the F-35, in which it is a major industrial contributor,” he said.
Barrie said the British face two main challenges.
“The first challenge is finding the money. The second is trying to cast a national strategy against a background where the U.K. has to develop a next-generation combat aircraft in an international partnership,” he said.
“Is it going to do this in collaboration with the French-German-led initiative to build a new European fighter, which is now being discussed in Paris and Berlin? It might be difficult to see where the British fit in on that program.
“Alternatively, do they look to craft a collaborative program with partners looking to break into the fighter market? For example, Turkey, with whom they are already aligned on a fifth-generation program.”
Britain is already collaborating with France on building a unmanned air-combat vehicle demonstrator.
Barrie said the third option could be a reprise of a deal similar to Britain’s involvement with the U.S. in F-35 development.
“The challenge from a trans-Atlantic perspective might be reconciling the diverging needs of the type of aircraft both sides might be looking for. With China pacing the threat in many ways, the U.S. could look for an aircraft that has very low observability, is quite large with a big internal weapons carriage capability and [is] long range. That may not be what the U.K. is looking for, although that’s not to say there might not be opportunities for some form of collaboration,” he said.
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.