I welcome this week’s announcement that the government is to launch a new Combat Air Strategy later this year. NDI has campaigned hard for a long-term plan that sets out intentions for the future of the RAF’s fleet of combat jets beyond Typhoon and F-35 Lightening. Though these capabilities are due to be sustained into the 2040s, direction is required now to ensure that the UK supply chain is properly placed to deliver the technologies that the RAF will require to keep it at the top table of air power capability and ensure our national security for the long-term.
It is encouraging to here Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson launching the strategy with an intention that it ‘brings together the best of British engineering, skill and design, and deliver a compelling vision for the future of air power…to secure an enduring and strategic relationship with UK industry.’ This is vital, suggesting that the MOD acknowledges that a consistent pipeline of work is required throughout the supply chain to sustain the skills and infrastructure that will be instrumental in delivering the future vision. MOD’s own figures show that the UK’s defence aerospace industry is made up of around 2,500 companies, most of them SMEs, who together generate more than £33.5bn in turnover and employ over 128,000 people. In the combat air sector, this is of course focused around the two complimentary programmes that will form the backbone of the RAF fleet out to the 2040s; Typhoon and F-35 Lightening. The new strategy will be critical in determining the route to ensuring that UK industry can transition to deliver what will follow on from these.
Of course, despite being a squarely national strategy, it will need to take account of the inevitable fact that, like the RAF’s current platforms, the next generation of jets will be developed as part of an international partnership. European cooperation will be an obvious avenue of exploration, though the UK is not currently part of the Franco-German initiative announced last year to explore this. An option similar to the UK’s involvement with the US-led F-35 programme is also likely to be considered. What is most important will be to recognise that, as a nation, we can’t afford to assume that we will always have access to the latest capabilities by virtue of our Allies. The leading role of the UK in the Eurofighter programme, and our position as choice partner of the US on F-35, is not due to any act of benevolence. UK industry, right through the supply chain brings the critical leading technology, skills and experience to the table that enables this. It is this ‘value-added’ that means that 15% of every F-35 will be British. But this will only last as long as we have the technical means to do so. And this has particular relevance to SMEs. Our supply chain is as well positioned to engage in multinational procurement programmes as it is domestic, and this must be factored into government thinking on combat air, in a way that the National Shipbuilding Strategy fell somewhat short. This is what we will be campaigning on as MOD develops its strategy ahead of an anticipated summer publication.