Inside the new state-of-the-art training school at BAE Systems’ plant in Samlesbury, Lancashire, there is a mural depicting the history of the UK’s military aircraft industry. Stretching back more than 100 years, iconic aircraft demonstrate the breadth and depth of a world-class defence manufacturing capability. From superb fighters like the Sopwith Camel and Royal Aircraft Factory SE5 of the first world war, the industry grew apace, with factories all over the UK producing world-class aircraft.
By the second world war we were designing, building and upgrading aircraft that became household names: the Supermarine Spitfire, the Hawker Hurricane and the Avro Lancaster. The explosion of technology unleashed by the war effort led to the UK flying jet aircraft powered by Sir Frank Whittle’s new engines. The Gloster Meteor was the only Allied jet fighter to see active service, a breakthrough technology that led to the UK’s jet-powered golden age of the 1950s and 1960s.
This golden age was followed by a period of mergers, acquisitions and bankruptcies as the costs of development rose. Government decisions did not help, as aircraft were seen as increasingly obsolete in the face of the new Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). Such thinking led to the cancellation of the TSR-2, a strike aircraft of the most advanced design ever built. Times were changing and consolidation was inevitable, a process that led eventually to the entire design and manufacture of military aircraft being left in the hands of BAE Systems, with Rolls-Royce as the sole engine manufacturer.
Despite this, the UK defence aerospace industry has continued to build astounding aircraft. The Red Arrows Hawk, built at the BAE Systems factory at Brough in Yorkshire, has been exported all over the world. Alongside the Hawk, BAE’s factories have built Jaguars, Tornados and now Typhoon fighters. Each has been an example of European collaboration, with the costs spread across several nations.
The UK defence aerospace industry still employs more than 100,000 people in highly skilled jobs. We retain the ability to design, build, operate and upgrade complex fighter aircraft, vital to defence. This sovereign capability, as it is referred to in military circles, means that the UK can use its Tornado and Typhoon aircraft to defend our shores and carry out the military objectives of the government without needing permission from any other country. In an ever-changing geopolitical situation, this ability is vital. But for the first time since the creation of the RAF 100 years ago, the UK does not have a design in hand for a new fighter aircraft. This is a problem because it takes roughly a decade to design and build one. In the past, as one model entered service, designers started work on the next, ensuring we kept pace with our potential enemies.
The UK does of course have a share of the US F-35 programme which will guarantee work for many years to come. The UK builds 15 per cent of every F-35 and this is a valuable slice of work. However, we only won our share of the programme by bringing something to the table. The UK’s STOVL (Short Take Off, Vertical Landing) technology, developed on Harrier, is a key capability for the F-35, based on British know-how. But we do not own the intellectual property on F-35 and cannot upgrade it without US permission. Our position as a prime contractor is also under threat as the Trump administration seeks new alliances and a different world order.
Meanwhile, aircraft designers and specialist engineers are nearing retirement age. Rolls-Royce has a register of people who have the critical knowledge for their engines — and the list is not a long one. The industry desperately needs a new design to work on, or these skills will be lost. The US and Russia have announced plans to build a next-generation fighter aircraft. Recently, France and Germany announced an agreement to follow suit. The UK is pondering its options and an announcement of a new Combat Air Strategy is expected soon. Despite Brexit, history tells us that a European collaboration gives the UK the best outcome in terms of work share, intellectual property and the ability to operate aircraft without needing the permission of other nations first.
It is vital for the sake of tens of thousands of highly skilled jobs and the apprenticeships, communities and supply chains they support that the UK makes the right choice. The Samlesbury mural needs a new picture to follow the Typhoon and F-35, or it will simply depict a once-great industry allowed to wither on the vine.
Ian Waddell is general secretary of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions (CSEU).