Friday, December 16, 2005

The end of the line

I wonder how many others noticed? Tucked into John Reid's statement to Parliament yesterday – and also buried in his Defence Industry Strategy - was a statement of quite earth-shattering importance.

Referring to the introduction of the Eurofighter and the Joint Strike Fighter, he told us that these aircraft would last us 30 years, and then went on to say:

Our current plans do not, therefore, envisage needing to design and build a future generation of manned fast jets beyond the current projects – that is some 30 years away.
Certainly, DefenceNews seems to have picked this up, writing: "The MoD appears to have formally brought down the curtain on the design and development of fast jet aircraft in the UK". And that it is – that is the end.

A nation in the vanguard of aviation that built the Sopwith Camel, which saw off the Red Baron, which built the Spifires and Hurricanes of World War Two, its first operational jet fighter, the Meteor, moving on the Hawker Hunter and the Lightning, we then took the multi-national route to build the Tornado and now the Eurofighter and the Joint Strike fighter.

Now, no more. Never a glad day when British skies will be defended by the product of British skill and engineering.

Instead, the dour Mr Reid had decided that we shall invest in a joint industry/government technology demonstrator program looking at unmanned (he calls them uninhabited) aerial vehicles (UAVs) and hopes that investment in UCAV technology could also enable Britain to contribute to an international manned program should it eventually emerge.

Considering that we have pulled out of the joint UK-US programme, code-named FOAS on this side of the pond, this almost certainly means that Reid is thinking of buying into the French-led Neuron programme, stripping away the last of our independent warplane design capability.

The worst of it all though is that this monumental decision has been taken with even the scintilla of a debate – or protest from MPs. Yet, in pinning our future on UAVs, Reid is not necessarily right.

By coincidence, the US General Accountancy Office this week issued a report on UAVs, confirming their usefulness but also drawing attention to the manifest problems of operating multiple craft, not least because the transmission frequencies they use are too congested, and many are unable to switch to less-crowded frequencies.

This is, in fact, a problem that is going to intensify, as the commercial pressure for radio frequencies intensify and, in the final analysis, will always limit the number of UAVs which can be operated in any particular theatre. As technology stands, and the foreseeable future, the manned fast jet will be needed.

But, on a cold winter day, a dour Scottish politician decided otherwise, and brought the UK to the end of the line, protentially committing us to a strategic reliance on untried technology built by an untrustworthy partner. And no one said a word.


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