Lack Of Defence Industrial Strategy Threatens UK Security, Expert Warns Amid BAE Cuts
The UK has no defence industrial strategy "at all" a defence expert has claimed amid BAE Systems's announcement that 2,942 jobs will be cut from its military aircraft devision.
Confused government policy on the issue now threatens the UK's security and economic growth, said Dr John Louth, Deputy Head of Defence, Industries and Society at the Royal United Services Institute.
"The UK government now has no defence industrial strategy, at all," he told the Huffington Post UK.
"So it's very, very difficult for BAE to make mid to long-term decisions around maintaining its skills and competency base.
"That is a real consequence of the SDSR [Strategic Defence And Security Review] last year and the overall policy since then to scrap the notion of a defence industrial strategy."
While the UK's decision to cut defence spending has been reflected by weakening global demand for BAE's Typhoon fighter jet, the government still bears responsibility for failing to protect the UK defence industry, Louth claimed.
"This is a market decision, and a response to supply and demand and the pricing mechanism … but if you look at what's happening in the US and in wider Europe there are very strong demands for an overt strategy that are being answered there. It's in the UK that we think the market will provide all of our answers," Louth said.
In the longer-term, Louth said, it is possible that the defence industry will move towards cheaper, unmanned aircraft and that BAE will have to shift its business accordingly.
"Over the next 20 to 30 years we will see a migration towards cheap and cheerful UAVs and a lot of that is going to be driven by costs," he said. "At the moment we don't know what the Joint Strike Fighter is going to cost per unit, but it's going to be one heck of a big number … and if you can't afford to put it in harms way then there is absolutely no point to having an aircraft."
However in the short and medium term the UK has to maintain its capacity for building more powerful manned aircraft, else it might find itself unable to deal with a future crisis.
"It is extremely dangerous to just assume that we'll juts be able to buy off the shelf, plug-and-play and conduct your operation. The real lesson for the government is if you leave it to the market this is the sort of stuff you'll be faced with."
The long-term impact of BAE's decision could be catastrophic for the economy and for the UK's defence capacity, Louth said - especially since it is not easy to replace an engineer with 15 to 20 years training.
"It's about eight per cent of BAE's workforce that we're talking about, so it's a big deal," he said. "If we just work through the numbers, at the moment the defence budget annually about 45 per cent of that straight away drops into the industrial base. It moves through the main building straight into the contracts base and into industry.
"It matters even more when those areas targeted are the high-skill areas. 3,000 air engineers is an enormous chunk of capability being removed from the UK order of battle."
In the short term the decision could affect maintenance and modification contracts that are already in place.
"Most aircraft now are being brought to market with in-depth maintenance packages. So one question is 'who's going to be doing the maintenance then?'
"The second question is modification. Most of the equipment being used needs to be modified for the needs of the specific operation. To modify that sort of technically advanced kit you need very skilled, problem-solving individuals, and a lot of those guys aren't going to be there.
"This is a big deal for UK PLC," Louth added.
Dr Neil Bentley, who is the deputy director-general of the Confederation of British Industry said that job losses on this scale "would clearly be a blow" to UK manufacturing.
“With tighter government defence budgets both at home and abroad, the competitive pressure on companies is fierce," he said.
“This announcement highlights why the Government must publish its Defence White Paper at the earliest opportunity. It needs to set out how it will work with industry, so all companies across the defence supply chain can plan with confidence and choose to invest here.”
Jim Murphy, the shadow defence secretary, said the news was "devastating" and called for ministers to respond quickly with a "clear plan of action".
Business Secretary Vince Cable has said that government officials have been in touch with BAE to help those affected by the latest job cuts.
"Last year I set up the Skills and Jobs Retention Group, chaired by Allan Cook, to help skilled workers find new jobs in UK manufacturing," Cable said in a statement. "The Group will ensure that the shortage of engineers in UK manufacturing is not exacerbated by the loss of talented people from companies like BAE Systems."