Speaking at DSEI yesterday, the Secretary of State for Defence, Sir Michael Fallon, summarised the government’s changing approach to defence under the categories of choice, collaboration and competition.
Noting that the geopolitical situation had worsened and that threats had increased since the last DSEI exhibition, he remarked that, ‘‘as danger proliferates, the stock of defence rises’’.
Outlining the government’s new look at national security, the defence minister characterised it as ensuring that the major Strategic Defence and Security Review of 2015 was being implemented effectively to meet changing needs. Highlighting the choices that the government has made to develop a stronger defence, Fallon referred to the decision to grow the defence budget by 0.5 per cent above inflation year on year. That has resulted in a £36 billion spend in 2017.
Big-ticket programmes such as the two aircraft carriers and ‘Dreadnought’ submarines are being implemented to ensure that the strategic nuclear and conventional deterrents will remain effective into the 2040s. Fallon also referred to an increasing amount being spent on innovations, with £800 million earmarked for investment in areas such as big data, which can be used to identify shortcomings and predict events with greater clarity than is currently possible. Harnessing artificial intelligence as a means of performing tasks with greater safety and reliability is also an area for investment, although the minister reassured the audience that ‘‘software is not a substitute for soldiers, sailors and pilots’’.
One specific task that was highlighted as an area where increased automation is key, is mine and IED clearance, and to that end he announced a £55 million contract for new mine disposal robots from Harris Corporation. Another contract was announced for Leonardo to develop the Icarus technology demonstrator for a vehicle active protection system. The Dragonfire laser weapon demonstrator was also mentioned, the minister noting that the technology would ‘‘appeal as much to the accountant as it would to the warrior’’.
Under the collaboration heading, Fallon said companies and agencies should continue to ‘‘work together across the defence enterprise’’. The aircraft carriers were cited as a good example, bringing together companies from across the UK into a single project. The F-35 fighter programme also underlined the value of how collaboration on an international scale could benefit UK industry.
Although the UK has been the world’s second-biggest defence exporter for more than 10 years, the minister underlined the need to maintain competition to drive down costs and retain a market position.
Referencing the UK’s post- Brexit stance to become more international, Fallon remarked, ’’It’s time to do more to compete for a bigger share of the international market. It’s time now to build in exportability [into defence products] from the off.’’
An example is the new Type 31e light frigate − with the ‘e’ standing for ‘export’ − of which five are to be delivered as Type 23 replacements from 2023. Setting a maximum price of £250 million, the vessels are expected to offer open architecture systems so that they can be tailored for export.