Thursday 5 July 2012

Reading the Small Print: The Consequences of Contracting Out Our Defence Industry

Christopher Wood

Uncertain Skies – The End Of British-Made Naval Aviation? : The last Harrier Jump Jet takes off from HMS Ark Royal, 24th November 2010. Photo Source

The UK is the fourth-largest procurer of military hardware in the world, spending nearly $63 billion in 2011. This equates to approximately $1000 per person in the UK. At this level of expense to the taxpayer, and given the rationale and requirements of maintaining national security, it is perhaps natural to assume that an overwhelming majority of this money is spent through indigenous ‘home-grown’ defence contractors to both boost the national economy and to assure an adequate measure of national independence during wartime. 

In many respects, this is the case. The UK’s largest defence contractor BAE Systems (which also ranks as the second largest globally) fills the MoD order books for projects ranging from the provision of small arms to the potential development of a replacement for the aging Trident nuclear deterrent. However, with the end of the Cold War, the past two decades has witnessed a shift away from ‘made in Britain’ defence products in a series of efforts to reduce defence expenditure and balance the books. In the past 20 years, there has been a noticeable and growing trend towards the multilateral development of key defence projects as well as outright procurement from foreign defence firms – particularly within the United States. 

The case for direct procurement
Direct defence procurement can provide Britain with some benefits. Our privileged position in our ‘special relationship’ with the United States gains us access to a vast mail-order catalogue of high tech death dealing devices. We are able to benefit from the vast amount of funding that is poured into military R&D in the US, a result of the some $711 billion that the US spends on defence every year. In the US defence industry we can find a natural and well-equipped ally to suit our requirements in some sectors of the defence market that the UK has never truly gained purchase in. Take, for example, helicopters. All the major helicopters used by our armed forces are licensed from American designs, yet are assembled in the UK. The Chinook, Sea King and Apache designs are all prominent examples of US designs adapted for use by UK forces. Developing a separate airframe for the roles met by these designs would be costly, but well within our capabilities should extraordinary need arise.

Lightning out of the blue

This contrasts sharply with the continuing farce that is the inclusion of the Joint Strike Fighter (or F-35) into our Fleet Air Arm. If this project symbolises the future of UK defence procurement, we should all be deeply worried. 

With the introduction of the two new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, it seems logical that a new fleet of carrier-based aircraft be purchased to replace the prematurely retired Harrier GR9 component. The MoD opted for the developmental American F-35 project, to be purchased directly from the US. The UK Government has dithered between the two available variants, the F-35B and F-35C, due to the spiralling cost of the programme that has arisen from development issues in the US as well as limitations to the budget for the new aircraft carriers imposed by the UK Treasury.

Under the current plans, the aircraft carrier will be completed two years before there are any planes to fly from it. There exists a degree of irony in that, had we opted for the F-35C and implemented a catapult system on the new aircraft carriers, it would have allowed us to fly most types of fighter off the aircraft carrier during this interim. In the determination to integrate further with the US military we have alienated other militaries in NATO – with the catapult system, we would have been able to work in closer concert with French and other NATO nations who are not in possession of VTOL-capable craft. There are also persuasive arguments to the effect that the F-35B is a less capable craft than the C variant, with a shorter operational range and a longer ‘turnover’ time that limits the number of possible sorties from the carrier within a given length of time.

Thus we are left with an aircraftless aircraft carrier that will effectively act as a large floating target for a period of two years. This is a planning fiasco of the worst order that has cost the public hundreds of millions of pounds whilst continuing to expose the UK to the stratospheric costs of mistakes being made across the Atlantic - even before a single plane has been delivered.

The best form of Defence?

The F-35 procurement project has left us out of pocket and the Navy out on a limb to operate effectively in times of war – a more effective example cannot be found than the intervention in Libya in 2011. Direct procurement renders us liable to the foibles of foreign governments – especially those of the US Department of Defence who have a tendency to tinker restlessly with designs and overshoot budgets. Direct procurement also fails to bring a single manufacturing job to the UK, or enlist any British engineering expertise other than in maintenance roles. It is also highly detrimental to our security. The Trident missile system is perhaps the most worrying – the delivery missiles are a US-leased design, and, legally speaking, the UK does not possess any missiles of its own. Other missile technology – particularly cruise missiles and other ground attack weapons vital to high intensity warfare with a history of rapid depletion in the opening stages of a war – are procured directly from foreign firms. Through our engagement in such programmes we are losing the indigenous expertise necessary to developing the new technology vital to maintaining our position as a world-leading exporter of defence equipment. What is more, Britain is damaging its ability to defend its national interests.

The practice of direct procurement contrasts sharply with a number of joint ventures the UK shares with our NATO partners in Europe. Possibly the most prominent example in recent years, the Eurofighter Project has seen the joint development of a world-beating interceptor that has re-affirmed Britain’s place at the top table of aerospace manufacturing. Successfully marketed to several foreign nations by BAE and the UK Government, the Eurofighter Project has yielded vital manufacturing jobs for the UK and bolstered our exports sector.

The UK should seek to engage with multilateral development projects such as Eurofighter where we lack the domestic capability. It is perhaps increasingly unavoidable that the UK coordinate its foreign policy and pool resources with other members of NATO in order to safeguard our national interests - however, we should not do so at the expense of rendering ourselves incapable of independent action through a dependence on procuring foreign defence equipment. We should be nurturing and taking advantage of our proven ability to develop high-end defence technology to the benefit of not only our economy, but our greater national security. Should fate deal us a cruel hand and we are left to defend ourselves without allies, our defence establishment should not be found lacking. After all, it would not be the first time.

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