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Wednesday, 11 October 2017

More British Self-Destruction

BAE systems is one of Britain's outstanding engineering companies; with a great deal of its success based on the supply of 'defence' equipment to the British and many foreign governments. The flow of government orders to the company has stimulated countless innovations, some of which have been widely diffused in industry worldwide. Like all defence suppliers, BAE systems depends on a massive complex of components suppliers, and it is itself a very significant contributor to other firms' final products.

This week it has been announced that the major parts of its aircraft assembly capability are to be closed. This follows a recent joint announcement by France and Germany that are to go it alone, together, on the construction of a next-generation fighter aircraft. It is unsurprising that Brexit Britain is not to be a partner in this venture, as we were in the Eurofighter which is to  cease production [in the UK] as soon as the existing run of orders is completed.

The largest concentration of job losses is at the two airfield based assembly plants at Salmesbury and Warton, in Lancashire. Warton is west of Preston, Samlesbury is to the east: Preston has always been a major centre of engineering, and the modern aviation capability was developed there by the English Electric Company, which had taken over the Dick, Kerr works that had been a major builder of tramcars and then of electric and diesel-electric railway engines while the higher level aircraft division was developed. Probably the highest level to which that firm aspired was in the nineteen-sixties with the development of a revolutionary fighter, designated the P1, that was confidently expected to become the world's leading 'plane for the 'seventies and beyond. Rumours circulating in Lancashire at the time indicated that British politicians were being browbeaten by the Americans into ordering US-designed rivals to the P1, while the British Treasury got cold feet about the cost of taking the design beyond the existing prototype to a full production version. So the project was abandoned: and that was regarded at the time as a major retreat from advanced science. This feeling of shamefaced abandonment of the 'best of British' was compounded by the fact that another very promising project, TSR2, was also abandoned.

Thus the UK was tied in to European joint fighter 'planes; which at least were assembled in this country while civil aviation was centred on Toulouse and the British industry became a components supplier to the Airbus and later to Bombardier when Short Brothers was sold to that Canadian firm. The facilities at Warton and Samlesbury, taken together, are Britain's last chance to retain the capacity to build aircraft. The present government, in thrall to the austerity lobby, are almost certain to let this capability - and the massive human skills base that contributes so much to it - be binned.

Meanwhile the Navy is being provided with the two biggest vessels it has ever had: aircraft carriers for which it is most unlikely that there will be so really effective aircraft for several years. The government is contracted to buy American 'planes that will need massive adjustment [paid for by the UK] to be even partially effective in operating from the carriers. To pay that bill, cuts so deep in the rest of the military are being imposed that this country's entire defensive capability is at risk.

A government with will and imagination would charge BAE with a project to build  a completely new generation of vertical take-off and landing [VTOL] planes, for which a global market could be generated once the planes were proven in service on the carriers.

Instead, the short-sighted submissive wastrels who cannot frame a Brexit negotiation with the EU will wring their hands at the loss of jobs and of technological capacity: and blunder on with the policy of austerity and the actuality of dismantling the economy on which the entire population depends.

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