A vital military/industrial core capability needed for the United Kingdom

by Chris Chant on 06/12/2010

British military requirements are changing, probably more slowly than they should, as the country’s political and military leadership seeks to accommodate itself to the combination of a changing world situation and a tightening of the national purse. Even so, the UK is gradually creating armed forces that are indeed better suited to the current military situation, which is based on the prevalence of irregular warfare rather than large-scale operations between power blocs of basically similar technological sophistication. This is all to the good, but we must be careful that the country does not loose sight of the fact that political and military priorities can, and indeed often do, change – and change with alarming speed. With their eyes fixed firmly on the desire for re-election within a maximum period of five years, politicians find it easy to be long-sighted in terms of prognostications about a future in which their opponents may be in power and will therefore take the blame for any of the current politicians’ mistakes, but short-sighted in terms of decisions that will affect their popularity as the current parliamentary term progresses toward the next general election.

Yet the nature of politics and the associated military thinking are as volatile as ever, and can change with a speed that is remarkably more rapid than any capacity for realistic response. In these circumstances, therefore, I believe that the British political and military leadership must think not only of the present and the foreseeable future, but of any and all the futures that might realistically start to develop not only during the next 10 years but the decade after that.

At the same time, it is national ‘head-in-the-sandism’ to claim that in times of crisis our allies and other ‘friendly nations’ will come to out assistance with supplies of weapons if not direct military support. Allies and ‘friendly nations’ are notoriously fickle in their provision of support. One needs look no further than the relationship of France and Israel in the late 1960s when, in a time of Israeli crisis and Arab pressure, France refused to deliver Dassault Mirage 5 warplanes which had been designed to an Israeli requirement and built against an Israeli order for which Dassault had already been paid.

From this it surely follows that the UK must retain, as a matter of overriding strategic importance, a national capability for the design and manufacture of the full range of armaments ranging from small arms ammunition to strategic weapons. This does not mean that the UK should physically undertake the design, procurement and and full-scale deployment of this full range of armaments during the current period of straitened finances, but must nonetheless build and maintain the capacity to do just this should the situation demand it.

What I believe to be essential for the assurance of national security, therefore, is the retention of a facility for the design of the majority of the weapons which our military forces may need for any of the types of warfare they may have to face in the time it takes to design, procure and undertake a major deployment of modern weapons. Quite apart from its importance in providing for national security, it should be added, this process would be a significant source of direct employment for designers, engineers and skilled manufacturers in fields as diverse as materials, chemistry, computing, cybernetics, radar, optronics, displays, communications and the like. And the benefits for employment would inevitably expand as the implications of discoveries in these fields find a host of civilian applications.

This process of conceiving and designing would be important in its own right, but would also have to be validated in the form of hardware. So I believe that these largely conceptual processes should be followed by prototyping and pilot production to ensure that hardware and software are not just paper or computer exercises, but can be shown to work under real-world conditions. This would also provide the experience that would allow improvements to be worked into the design being validated, and spur further ideas for later generations of weapons. This whole process of prototyping and limited production would itself provide skilled employment and, though expensive, would be invaluable in maintaining key national strategic design and manufacturing capabilities at costs considerably less than those of large-scale production and deployment, with all the latter’s liabilities in terms of life-cycle operating and maintenance costs.

The testing of pilot-production hardware would also demand the establishment and maintenance of high-quality test and development units within the armed forces, and these units would be invaluable in their own right as cadres for larger units equipped with these new-generation weapons should full manufacture and deployment be deemed necessary. They would also be invaluable for the training of foreign nationals should any of the new weapon types receive export orders.

The importance and realistic nature of such an effort can be found in the British Aerospace EAP (Experimental Aircraft Programme) prototype. This was designed and built as a technology demonstrator for the anticipated European fighter that became the European Fighter Aircraft in 1986 after France’s 1985 withdrawal from the programme, then the Eurofighter 2000 and finally the current Eurofighter Typhoon.

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