Fresh focus on UK defence at Farnborough 2014
At this year's Farnborough Air Show held in Hampshire, it is UK defence, rather than commercial aerospace, which is the centre of attention. As the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review looms closer and a general election is now less than a year away, the work of the UK armed forces - and British industry in supporting defence - is being given much more exposure.
Two years ago, in 2012, Prime Minister David Cameron announced a collaborative venture between government and industry called the Aerospace Growth Partnership. That led to the establishment of an Aerospace Technology Institute in Cranfield, with GBP2 billion worth of investment over seven years and new investment in the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Ansty, Warwickshire.
This time around, however, the Prime Minister opened the event with a number of defence-focused announcements.
Cameron told assembled reporters and guests that the government will be investing GBP1.1 billion in defence projects for the UK armed forces. This will include an extra GBP800 million investment in Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) capabilities. Extra funding in ISTAR capabilities will bolster the UK's ability to fight against global terrorism and hostage-taking, Cameron said.
The A400M is a military transporter designed to meet the requirements of the air forces of Belgium, France, Germany, Spain, Turkey and the UK..
Also, GBP300 million has been earmarked for existing capabilities including a new E-Scan radar for the RAF's Typhoon aircraft, which has been in development with BAE Systems and the Eurofighter and Euroradar consortia. HMS Protector, an ice-patrol ship currently leased from Norwegian company GC Rieber Shipping, will also be purchased.
Cameron also announced several initiatives which, it is hoped, will boost the UK defence sector and the British economy. This includes a new UK Defence Solutions Centre, to be based in Farnborough, and a new GBP4 million UK Centre for Maritime Intelligent Systems to be located in Portsmouth.
During his speech, Cameron said: "Having modern, technologically advanced and flexible armed forces to protect us and our interests is vital. Because of the difficult decisions we have taken to tackle the deficit we are able to make these vital investments in our defence capabilities."
"We are also taking action to sustain our thriving defence industry, as part of our long-term economic plan to back business, create jobs and secure a brighter future for hardworking people," he added.
After his speech, the Prime Minister met with some of the British businesses represented at Farnborough and visited the equipment on display, including commercial aircraft like the Airbus A350.
A400M struts its stuff but F-35 absence embarrasses
Much of the British Armed Force's future equipment is being proudly displayed at this year's Air Show including the new A400M transport aircraft. The first A400M - an aircraft which has been dogged with delays and cost increases over its lifetime - will be delivered to the Royal Air Force in September, ahead of schedule. The delivery schedule was sped up after a delivery slot swap was agreed with France; the RAF will now have four A400M by the end of this year and a further ten next year.
The Ministry of Defence (MOD) also used Farnborough to confirm that all nine Voyager tanker aircraft - a converted A330 passenger airliner which has replaced the Tristar refuelling aircraft - have been delivered on schedule.
"Delivering the Voyager aircraft on time is a major achievement and an effective demonstration that MOD procurement is not only under control, but also delivering timely and world-class results for the taxpayer, industry and the armed forces," said Philip Dunne, UK Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology.
Can the UK get its money's worth from its investment, or is it cursed to play second fiddle to the US and Lockheed Martin?
But it hasn't all been good news for the British government. The expected arrival of the F-35B Lightning II aircraft, a multi-billion pound procurement project for the government, has not materialised due to an engine failure on one aircraft, which has grounded the entire fleet. It's an embarrassing development for all involved, especially as a UK appearance was meant to signify the growing success of the F-35 programme.
Senior officials say the engine fire at Eglin Air Force Base on June 23 was an isolated incident and does not affect the rest of the fleet.
At a high-level briefing on Monday, with representatives from all the major F-35 stakeholders, US Air Force Lt Gen Chris Bogdan said pilots were on 24-hour standby to head to the UK if a grounding order was lifted. But yesterday, a Pentagon spokesman confirmed the F-35 would not be appearing at Farnborough this year.
"We're all disappointed," said Bogdan during the packed media brief. "It would have been a wonderful thing to have those airplanes here so the rest of the world could see that it's not a paper airplane and it's really a technological marvel."
Marvel or not, its absence takes some of the shine off of the UK government's defence announcements. A problem with the F-35 will once again open up discussions about the decision to procure the aircraft, and whether it was the right choice. Nevertheless, Farnborough is a good opportunity to highlight some of Britain's best equipment and the excellent industry behind it.