This blog post was first published by The Spectator on 12 July 2018
This year marks the RAF’s 100th birthday – a chance to reflect on an extraordinary period of growth and achievement, the remarkable history of human courage and skill, and the story of British leadership in aircraft engineering and technology.
From protecting ground troops in the First World War with the Sopwith Camel, defending the skies over the UK in the Battle of Britain with the Spitfire, recovering the Falklands with the Harrier and repelling all air space trespassers with the Typhoon today, it has been a century-long partnership between the RAF and industry.
A powerful combination of military expertise and industrial innovation – that has kept the RAF at the forefront of air power and protected the nation for over one hundred years – and sustained a sovereign combat air capability and world-leading aviation industry.
The impact has not just been in the air. Today, our economic, technological, skills and societal contribution serves to highlight the importance of the industry to the nation. BAE Systems alone supports 130,400 jobs across the UK and contributes £11.1 billion to the UK’s GDP and £4.7 billion of exports – almost 1% of the UK total.*
Through the Typhoon programme we spend £487 million with more than 450 domestic suppliers, supporting 9,600 UK jobs. Over time, the Typhoon programme is expected to generate a return of some £28.2 billion from an initial Government investment of £15.2 billion.
None of this would have been possible without the foresight and pragmatism of successive Governments, which have committed investment and supported technological developments in the aircraft industry, as well as the professionalism of the RAF in promoting British interests at home and abroad.
Of course, much has changed in the last few decades and the current political and economic environment will force further change.
As national defence budgets have largely declined since the end of the Cold War, industry has been challenged to become more competitive and productive.
Key to this is our long-standing partnerships with overseas aerospace companies, which continue today on the Eurofighter Typhoon consortium with Airbus and Leonardo and as a partner to Lockheed Martin on the global F-35 Lightning II.
In a world where the cost and complexity of developing new aircraft can rarely be shouldered by one player, collaboration with international partners – both old friends and new – will continue to play a critical role.
Developing propriety technology is just as important and over the last five years, BAE Systems has invested close to £4.5 billion in R&D in the UK, working with universities, SMEs and commercial partners.
For decades our apprenticeships programmes have provided the highest quality training for young people and this continues today with more than 2,000 apprentices in training across our UK sites.
With the benefit of talented people and regular investment in modern technology, our UK workforce is some 80% more productive than the national average.
To help drive these productivity levels through our ecosystem, we have teamed up with the Government and other companies to help found the ‘Be the Business’ productivity campaign. Together, we are establishing leadership development and mentoring programmes, in conjunction with a number of British universities, to share good practice with our supply chain – in their interest, our interest and the nation’s interest.
To ensure skills of this quality do not decline and economic export rewards do not wither, we must always look to the future.
The new national Combat Air Strategy will be crucial – the Government, RAF and industry working together to define a long-term plan, ensuring the UK is equipped to defend the realm, play a leading role as a NATO peacekeeper and to maintain sovereign independence and industrial capabilities.
This must be our mission if we are to ensure a glorious past is the foundation of an exciting future. It is against this background that we look forward to the next hundred years, shoulder to shoulder with the RAF, harvesting our mutual heritage to underpin our nation’s future prosperity and security.
I cannot think of a more worthwhile mission.
*The Contribution of BAE Systems to the UK Economy published by Oxford Economics, November 2017