BAE’s tactical cuts: a reflection of a lack of British strategic direction

UK final assembly of crewed combat aircraft will likely end by the mid-2020s, due to a lack of long-term strategy from British governments.

British combat aircraft assembly

By Douglas Barrie, Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace

Up to 1,400 BAE Systems staff in the company’s Military Air business will see their posts go over the next three years as part of the company ‘restructuring’. It will probably be of little consolation to them that the fundamental issues behind the move have less to do with securing (or rather, not securing) additional export sales and arguably more to do with a number of decisions taken, or not, from the early 1990s to 2005 and beyond.

During these two decades the British government, the Ministry of Defence (MoD), and the then British Aerospace took decisions that have left the United Kingdom as only a junior partner in the single next-generation crewed combat aircraft in which it is involved now, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). At least one crewed combat-aircraft programme and possibly two intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance unmanned-aerial-vehicle projects were to be abandoned. The UK has instead purchased the MQ-1 Predator and the RQ-9 Reaper from the United States, while by 2005 the MoD saw no need for a crewed combat aircraft beyond the F-35: ’As we are introducing two new highly sophisticated manned combat fast jet aircraft types which are intended to last for more than 30 years, current plans do not envisage the UK needing to design and build a future generation of manned fast jet aircraft beyond these types’, the defence ministry stated in the 2005 Defence Industrial Strategy.

BAE’s two main manufacturing sites for combat-aircraft work are at Warton and Samlesbury, in the northeast of England. The former is home to UK final assembly of the Eurofighter Typhoon multi-role fighter and the BAE Systems Hawk advanced jet trainer, while the latter is the production site for the rear section of the F-35. The company’s Brough site in the east of England produces parts of the Hawk.

The first Hawk, XX154, made its debut flight in August 1974, while the Typhoon flew two decades later in 1994. The first Typhoon prototype was flown the year after the last British-Aerospace-assembled Panavia Tornado strike aircraft was handed over to the Royal Air Force. Additional export sales of the Hawk or Typhoon, welcome though they would be for ‘UK plc’, would be unlikely to extend the production of either type much beyond the mid-2020s.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s the UK was looking to introduce two new combat-aircraft types between 2010 and 2015. One, the so-called SHAR(R) (later known as the Future Carrier-Borne Aircraft), was intended to replace the Sea Harrier; the other would provide a successor to the Panavia Tornado, and was known as the Future Offensive Aircraft (FOA). ‘Air Staff Target 425’ set out the requirements for the FOA, work on which was to include the BAe Testbed low-observable-airframe design during the latter half of the 1990s.

In the early 1990s, the UK became a partner in the US Joint Advanced Strike Technology programme, the precursor to the JSF, and in 1996 joined the JSF concept-demonstration phase. The FOA, meanwhile, was to go through a variety of name changes, including Future Offensive Air System, before being dropped in the early 2000s. In future, it appeared that air-to-surface missions could be met by a mix of cruise missiles launched at long-range stand-off by crewed aircraft, unmanned combat air vehicles and the F-35 when it entered service. Furthermore, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and far less antagonistic relations with Russia during the 1990s, appeared to negate the requirement that the original FOA was intended to address.

The result of all the above is that when Typhoon and Hawk production ends, likely by the mid-2020s, there will at the very least be a hiatus in British final assembly of crewed combat aircraft. But, despite the UK’s reticence in committing to a further generation of crewed combat aircraft beyond the F-35, BAE Systems has looked to exploit some of its know-how in the export arena, for instance in supporting a Turkish effort to develop a combat aircraft. Even so, whether such an approach, without home-nation product endorsement of some form, is sustainable in the long term remains to be seen.

Germany, a partner in both the Tornado and Eurofighter Typhoon, began serious work to consider joint development of a future combat aircraft at the beginning of this year. However, France, rather than Britain, has emerged as its main partner so far, with discussions also held with Spain and Sweden. Yet, a triumvirate of France, Germany and the UK would bring together the three main pillars of European defence aerospace.

All of Europe’s fourth-generation combat aircraft – Gripen, Rafale and Typhoon – will likely end production during the 2020s. A European ‘fifth-generation’ aircraft requirement is beginning to emerge that could help fill at least some of these production lines, but currently any UK involvement is uncertain.

This analysis originally featured on the Military Balance+, the new IISS online database that enables users in government, the armed forces and the private sector, as well as academia and the media, to make faster and better-informed decisions. The Military Balance+ allows users to customise, view, compare and download data instantly, anywhere, anytime.

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