On 21 February, I informed the House that the Ministry of Defence would produce a strategy for the combat air sector. Development of the strategy has drawn heavily on expertise from across defence, wider government, academia, think-tanks, industry, and international partners. Defence of the United Kingdom, protection of our people and our contribution to securing the rules-based international order requires us to deter adversaries by having the capability and the will to use decisive force to deliver our defence, foreign policy and economic objectives.
The threats we face are evolving and increasing ever more rapidly. World-class combat air capability allows us to maintain control of the air both at home and around the world. The United Kingdom’s combat air sector provides the capability to underpin our ability to keep Britain safe and act around the globe. It also makes a significant contribution to the United Kingdom’s economy and to our international influence. The UK is a global leader in combat air, with cutting-edge military capability underpinned by world-class industrial and technical know-how. That is why we are creating Tempest.
The UK combat air sector has an annual turnover of over £6 billion and directly supports over 18,000 highly skilled jobs across the UK. It supports over 100,000 jobs in the supply chain and more than 2,000 companies across the UK. The UK is the world’s second-largest exporter of defence equipment, with defence aerospace representing over 80% of the value of these exports. This is a position that I and, I am sure, the whole House wish to protect going forward.
We are at the heart of a number of key international programmes, including F-35—the largest defence programme in the world. Our position was secured through world-leading intellectual property, understanding, innovation and industrial capability. As we leave the European Union, we will continue to seek partnerships across Europe and beyond to deliver UK, European and global security. To do this, we must retain access to our proud industrial base. The UK’s combat air sector is therefore critical to the UK’s prosperity and to our ability to deliver the best capability to the frontline to deter and act against the threats that we face. (Emphasis added throughout—Ed.)
The future of the UK’s combat air sector, however, is not assured. There has been a gap between major combat air development programmes, and a clear indication of future UK military requirements is required to stimulate and deliver the research and development investment that is needed. The strategy defines a clear way ahead to preserve our national advantage and maintain choice in how it is delivered.
We will work with wider government, industry and international partners to deliver the strategy by taking the following steps. We will invest in upgrading Typhoon to maintain its world-class capabilities for the coming decades. The MOD will provide investment in key UK design and engineering skills as a means to generate UK intellectual property by the implementation of the future combat air system technology initiative. The initiative was established by the 2015 strategic defence and security review and builds on recent UK technology investment. We will work together to achieve a more open and sustainable industrial base that invests in its own future, partners internationally and breaks the cycle of increasing cost and length of time to introduce new fighter aircraft.
The UK will work quickly and openly with allies to build on or establish new partnerships to define future requirements and how they can be delivered in a mutually beneficial manner. By preserving our ability to maintain operational advantage and freedom of action, the strategy will ensure we have greater choice in how we deliver future capabilities and are able to maximise the economic and strategic benefits of future combat air acquisition programmes.
In the 100th year of the Royal Air Force, this strategy demonstrates that we can achieve anything. Britain is a world leader not only with our armed forces but in the fighting machines we can produce. The strategy demonstrates that Britain will retain its world leadership in this sector, by having the greatest fighter aircraft of any nation in the world. I commend this statement to the House.
Selected excerpts from Williamson’s answers in the ensuing debate
-- Now is the time to look to the whole globe, see what other nations we can partner with and build strong new alliances. We have strong military links and deep connections with many nations. We are confident that, because of our world-leading position in combat air, many nations will want to work with us. I do not believe that we should be in the customs union, and that is the Government’s policy. I do not believe for one minute that being outside the customs union will in any way restrict our ability to deliver Tempest.
-- I hope to avoid the many problems relating to currency projections by ensuring this new fighter is built in Britain. It is a great advantage to have the pound sterling.
-- This is a great opportunity for the whole of the UK. We are a world leader in this sector: other countries turn to us for leadership. That is what we are providing; that is what we will deliver, and we will provide the jobs and prosperity that come with it.
-- We can lead: we have always led in this field, and we have the world’s greatest technology. To show such leaderships means that other nations will come and be part of the project, and that is part of the dialogue we are having.
-- One of the key changes we want is rapidly to reduce the amount of time it takes to develop the new airframe. With the F-35, we saw that go on for far too long, and we need to reduce that period. I would like to see Tempest flying in the first half of the next decade, and we should bring forward the technology and give this project the inspiration and the drive to make it a reality as quickly as possible.
-- This is going to be a global project. One thing I would say is that Britain is a nation that actually has fifth-generation fighters and has the industrial expertise to develop new generation fighters. France or Germany do not have that expertise; we do, and we have that leadership role. We do not want to limit our sights just to European partners, but to open this up to the globe, working with partners with whom we have not worked in the past and bringing the benefits to our allies that are global allies.
-- We are looking at a range of different international partners. We see this an opportunity to offer something that is different and alternative to the offerings that the United States has traditionally brought forward. We see this as an opportunity to collaborate with new nations that have not usually been involved in such collaborations before. The initial indications are exceptionally positive.
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