Building military aircraft is an industry in which Britain has maintained a lead since the first Sopwith Camel took to the skies in RAF colours a century ago, right up until the Typhoon and the F-35 — projects in which BAE and other British aerospace companies are involved.
Over that time, however, the complexity of the product has evolved so much that no one country, let alone one company, can expect to produce a fighter plane entirely on its own, without input from specialists from across the globe. The Spitfire had a few hundred components; it was a simple enough design to allow rapid construction so that during the Battle of Britain the challenge was not procuring enough planes, but rather training enough pilots.
The F-35, if you include bits of computer code, has 1.2 billion components. It takes four years to build each one — although by pulling out all the stops, according to Mark Francois, a former defence minister and member of the Defence Select Committee, that could potentially be brought down to three years.
That presents a potential problem for defence. It is no longer possible to prepare rapidly for a sudden emerging threat as we did in 1939/40. Defence now involves looking much further ahead so as to ensure that we have the right equipment in place for when a threat does emerge. The deterioration of relations with Russia reminds us that UK military capability needs not only to be focused on the asymmetric battles in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, which have formed the bulk of the RAF’s workload over the past three decades; we also need to be prepared for the prospect of a peer-on-peer conflict. That requires us to have the best possible equipment.
Yet how we source that equipment is important, because there is a danger of losing what Ian Waddell, general secretary of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions (CSEU) calls ‘sovereign capability’, meaning self-reliance, in that we retain the ability to design, manufacture, upgrade and maintain our own defence technology. It would be very easy to allow the defence industry to slip down the route of only building specialist parts in multinational projects like the F-35 — of which BAE manufactures 13-15 per cent by value — but in doing so we could end up dependent on other countries which in extreme situations could ‘switch off’ our military capability by denying us access to the required technology.
Could we afford to do what France and Sweden, for example, have done, and build what are essentially their own, home-grown fighter planes (even if they, too, have plenty of foreign-made systems and parts)? The Defence Select Committee has recommended that the government increases defence spending over a number of years from two per cent of GDP to three per cent. Yet with the government committing extra resources to the NHS — a commitment which will itself require significant tax rises — it is hard to see how this could be delivered.
What we need to be doing in order to secure the future of our aerospace industry as much as the nation’s defence, says Waddell, is to be starting work now on the next generation of fighter aircraft. ‘What usually happens is that as soon as an aircraft enters service, engineers are already working on the next generation of aircraft. Yet for the first time in 100 years they are not working on anything new.’ Without that work, he says, the defence aerospace industry could end up going the way of the submarine industry, whereby ‘we forgot how to build submarines’.
The defence aerospace industry isn’t just about fulfilling the needs of Britain’s armed forces; it is a valuable export industry in its own right, accounting for one per cent of all UK exports. BAE itself employs 35,000 people, and for every 100 people it employs directly, it supports a further 380 jobs in supply companies. It also offers 2,000 apprenticeships.
Besides the F-35 and Typhoon, the company still sells the Hawk training aircraft around the world, known to the public as the plane flown by the Red Arrows. It is involved in the project to engineer Compass Call, a weapons system on the US jet EC-130H.
Yet sales of the Eurofighter Typhoon have fallen short of expectations. While the plane is what Air Vice Marshal Simon Rochelle calls ‘international by design’, disappointing sales led to BAE announcing last October that it was cutting 2,000 jobs. The Typhoon has been taken up by Middle Eastern states — Saudi Arabia has committed to buying 72 and Qatar, 24. The Eurofighter consortium countries — Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain — have between them ordered nearly 500. But otherwise the only country to have placed an order is Austria, which is to buy 15.
That so many aircraft sales have been to Saudi Arabia presents a potential political problem. Given Jeremy Corbyn’s statements of arms sales to the country, could the trade be cut off by a future Labour government? On this, Waddell has some encouragement. ‘Every time Jeremy Corbyn says something about arms sales it sends shockwaves through the industry,’ he says. ‘But his language is being adjusted as he understands the economic arguments.’
One thing which does intrigue watchers of the industry is whether, when the replacement for the Typhoon and F-35 does eventually take to the sky, it will have a pilot sitting in it. While still at its very early stages, an Anglo-French project, the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) has at its heart the concept of an unmanned fighter plane. If the project survives Brexit (the UK and French governments have indicated that they remain committed to it, and have so far each put in £15 billion), might it lead to us having the capability, come 2040, to fight a war entirely by remote control?
There is some scepticism about this. ‘I am very wary of people saying the future will be autonomous,’ says Rochelle. ‘It is what I call buzzword bingo.’ Sir Roger Carr, chairman of BAE Systems, thinks that future military aircraft will have a mixture of manned and unmanned capability. Mark Francois says he is ‘still going to want a human being making the ultimate decision whether to fire a weapon’.
Nevertheless, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the human being concerned will actually be sitting on the plane rather than in a virtual cockpit on the ground, free of g-forces and perhaps in a better physical condition to make the judgment. With drones already established as part of warfare, controlling fighter planes from the ground might well be the next great challenge for British engineers.