LONDON ― A decision on whether the British government should put in place a long-term strategy to map out long-term development of the defense aerospace sector could be accelerated following large job losses recently announced by BAE Systems.
“The scale of the job losses is such that it does put an obligation on us to look at that work [a national combat air strategy] and see if it can be accelerated,” Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told members of Parliament during an Oct. 25 Defence Committee hearing.
Earlier this month, BAE announced it is to shed nearly 2,000 jobs across several of its U.K. operations, with the brunt of cuts hitting Warton, where the company builds Typhoon fighters and Hawk jet trainers.
Some 750 workers will be made redundant at Warton, northwest England, and a few at the nearby Samlesbury site where it primarily produces F-35 structures, as the company realigns capacity to build fighters and trainers to match its weakening order book.
Fallon told lawmakers it is his ambition to work toward a national combat air strategy, but the government is not “quite there yet” in terms of launching the scheme.
The British introduced a national naval shipbuilding strategy in September, mapping the way forward for industry and government in that sector. A refresh of defense industrial policy in general is expected to be wheeled out by the end of the year.
The defense secretary said Britain doesn’t need a replacement for the Eurofighter Typhoon for at least 22 years, but consideration of the way ahead should start sooner rather than later.
“We don’t need to replace Typhoon until 2040, but it is not too early to start thinking about how we would go about it and ensure that work fits with other work we have been doing, for example with France on the future combat air system,” Fallon said.
Doug Barrie, the senior military air analyst at the London-based think tank International Institute for Strategic Studies, called Britain’s under-investment in next-generation systems a waste of time, adding that Britain ― in whatever it does now ― will be facing an activity gap as Typhoon production slows.
“Part of the problem the sector now faces is that investment decisions, or more accurately lack of investment, in next-generation programs, from the mid- to late 1990s onwards, are now coming home to roost. A defense aerospace strategy now would still face a fundamental problem of there being a gap between the current generation of aircraft ending production and something new taking up the slack.”
Future combat aircraft
The problem isn’t just an issue for the British. There are similar issues across the rest of Europe, said Barrie.
“A national combat aircraft strategy is a good idea, but, as always, ideas have to be implemented and resourced and planned. These things don’t happen overnight, and in the U.K.’s case the issue is further complicated in the near term because Brexit makes Britain’s involvement in European defense industrial projects more challenging,” he said, using a colloquial term for Britain’s divorce from the European Union.
Barrie said work on the future combat air system, or FCAS, with France was a useful exercise, however the more important question is what happens with the German-led initiative to look at a new-generation aircraft announced mid-year.
“The Germans and French have tied up on this, and it’s my view they have had discussion with the Swedes and Spanish, so you could see a sixth-generation program forming around those nations, with the U.K. sitting on the wrong side of the fence on this,” he said.
Berlin wants a decision on whether the program can move forward by late next year. And Barry said that in terms of the U.K. sector, its “hard to imagine a less propitious set of circumstances as the U.K. tries to extract itself from the European Union.”
Proposals to advance the BAE/Dassault Aviation-led FCAS program to a demonstrator construction phase are likely to be considered at an upcoming Anglo-French summit.
Fallon said he would be reviewing the FCAS program shortly during a visit to London by his French counterpart as part of summit preparations.
The British minister also said that aside from the work with the French, discussions also continue with the U.S. about the development of future combat aircraft.
Paul Everitt , the chief executive of ADS, an aerospace and defense trade association, said the launch of the strategy would be a step in the right direction.
“A national combat air strategy to help maintain the U.K.’s position as a global leader in the sector would be a welcome step. The recent national shipbuilding strategy has given industry a better understanding of likely demand through to the 2030s, which will help guide investment in capability and capacity,” Everitt said.
“Defense aerospace has been a particular success story over the last 70 years, representing 85 percent of the U.K.’s defense exports from 2006 to 2015, and giving the U.K. armed forces an important operational advantage.”
The defense secretary said he called in the BAE chairman, Roger Carr, for a meeting last week to urge the company to keep production lines open while further jet aircraft orders were sought.
“We will continue to work with the company to maximize these opportunities, but in turn we want the company to keep the lines open. ... We also want them to keep their graduate and apprenticeship programs going so that when we are in a position to take further development decision in relation to future combat aircraft, then we have those skills available,” he told lawmakers.
BAE failed to respond in time for this article.
Further export sales of Typhoon remain key to helping bridge the gap until new developments can get underway.
Fallon said he hoped a statement of intent signed with Qatar in September to purchase 24 Typhoon’s and six Hawk trainers would be firmed up into a manufacturing contract by the end of the year.
The government also continues to push for at least a statement of intent from Saudi Arabia to purchase a second batch of Typhoons from BAE for a long-awaited deal for about 48 jets to add to the 72 aircraft already delivered.
Fallon, who was in Saudi Arabia last month, said he believes the Gulf state will “commit to batch two, and we continue to work on the timing.”
BAE expects to build 20 Typhoon’s this year, and that figure is expected to nearly halve to 11 in 2018 with deliveries to the British Royal Air Force and the Royal Air Force of Oman.
The company has previously confirmed it would be slowing final assembly rates but declines to detail how 2019 output might look.
Financial analysts in Britain say as few as five jets could come off Warton assembly line during that year.
Structures for Typhoons being assembled by other nations in the Eurofighter consortium will also continue, particularly for an order secured by Italy for 28 jets for Kuwait.
Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain are partners in the Typhoon development with BAE, Leonardo and Airbus for industrial capability.