We witnessed yesterday the government realising the importance of a cohesive long term defence procurement programme as it scrabbled around to produce headline grabbing policies for its Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) in the wake of the Paris terror attacks.
What was clear was that the government is having to respond to this latest crisis using the disastrous policies of the 2010 SDSR because the policies announced yesterday will do nothing to assist in the short term response to Islamic State.
Large scale defence projects took a battering after years of Labour mismanagement — the Nimrod programme being a prime example. And it left us weakened as a military nation, scrabbling together troops and equipment and delaying our own projects to fit in with our allies like the Joint Strike Fighter.
While some have argued that the UK would be far better making ‘off the peg’ military purchases and forgoing investment in our domestic defence industry in an effort to reduce our national defence expenditure, this is in no way my view.
I believe the answer lies with reinvigorating our own defence industry: every pound invested in the UK defence industry is a pound invested not only in the defence of the realm but also in British innovation, in highly skilled British jobs, in British technological developments that have a range of both military and civilian applications, and in the future of a highly skilled UK work force.
With support from government and a belief in British ingenuity, technological advancement and quality, the UK’s defence industry has grown in strength and is today the world’s second largest defence exporter after the United States, even within the constraints of a shrinking market.
10 per cent of the UK’s overall manufacturing output is now defence related, turning over £35bn a year and employing 300,000 people, often in highly skilled, well paying jobs. These figures do not even count the number of non-industrial jobs that are created by the defence industry in every sector from catering through to cardboard manufacture.
Defence-related business also accounts for a large share of UK research and development (R&D) activity in a number of advanced manufacturing sectors, with half of all R&D in the electrical equipment and machinery industries and around a third in the aerospace sector.
Civil crossover of defence technologies is also becoming a major income source for many companies. A good but by no means solitary example of this would be the Eurofighter project that has developed crossover products estimated to be worth €9 billion to the civil manufacturing sector.
When you factor in how defence spending encourages innovative science and technology and helps to sustain the UK’s science & technology base; creates valuable intellectual property that is exploited in both defence and civil markets; maintains advanced engineering skills and knowledge; provides high-quality employment and contributes to growth more generally, including through tax revenue, to ignore the British defence industry to pursue a purely “off the peg” defence procurement policy from abroad would be utterly disastrous for a wide cross section of British industry.
The dangers of this state of affairs on a nation state’s independence in pursuing its own international agenda can be seen in how the U.S. has used defence procurement as a ‘lever’ in a range of countries, in order to bring them ‘into line’ with U.S. thinking.
In my view it is critical to keep an active and adaptable domestic defence industry that is capable of providing the UK military with much of the equipment it needs.
However, there are clear problems in the defence procurement process which stem mainly from political rather than industrial decisions.
I been a constant critic of the F35 programme that even after billions of dollars of investment from a range of nations is still to produce a useful piece of military hardware. While I hope I’m proved wrong in this area and while I am a great supporter of pushing the technological envelope, I have a feeling a less advanced fighter bomber aircraft would have produced a cheaper, faster and more capable option.
In military procurement, the first question that should be asked is this: “What military equipment do we need to defend the country against known, and as yet unknown, threats?”
When that question is answered only then should we look at how we are able to look at how we can achieve that objective in the most cost effective way, preferably using our excellent UK defence industry resources, either individually or in a shared development deal.
(Mike Hookem is UKIP’s Defence Spokesman)