Dr Scott Steedman FREng
The ‘root and branch’ defence review announced by the Government in July will examine not only the purpose and implementation of UK national defence policy, but its technological priorities. The announcement coincided with an upsurge in the fighting in Afghanistan and debate in the media over the impact of equipment shortages on the capability of British armed forces. A Green Paper is promised early in 2010 with an in-depth Strategic Defence Review to follow after the general election.
Last year the Government published the first National Security Strategy, which states that the UK is committed to a high-technology approach, retaining a broad range of capabilities to address not only support for current operations but threats to national security and national interests that may emerge or re-emerge in the future.
Against this backdrop, it is vital to remember the very long timescales associated with the research, development, manufacture, deployment and operational life of high-tech defence technology. Two topical examples illustrate this point.
Earlier this summer, the Ministry of Defence announced that the planned upgrade of some 30 Puma helicopters would go ahead, extending their service life to at least 2022. News reports state that new turboshafts will be installed, along with new gearboxes, tail rotors, engine controls and a digitised autopilot system. The Puma is 40 years old this year.
In October, Charles Haddon-Cave QC will publish his report into the Nimrod MR2 tragically lost in Afghanistan in 2006 with 14 crew members on board. The Nimrod MR2 was an upgrade of the original Nimrod aircraft, which itself was based on the Comet civil airliner, with the first military versions being brought into service in 1969, 40 years ago. According to the terms of the review, it “will examine the arrangements for assuring the airworthiness and safe operation of the Nimrod MR2 in the period from its introduction in 1979 to the accident on 2 September 2006”.
Extension of life brings its own challenges: operating in new environments, inserting new technology, ensuring safety protocols are up to date, for instance, but it is clear that very long service lifetimes can be extracted from defence equipment, given appropriate engineering resources.
Whatever technological path the Government sets out along today will therefore have a profound effect on its capacity to assure national security for many decades to come. Whatever is known about the future, it is clearly far less certain than it appeared even 10 years ago.
Simple facts will drive the emergence of future threats to the UK and the global economy on which we all depend so heavily. The current generation is witnessing the greatest rate of population growth in the history of the human race. Education can curtail that rate of growth sometime in the next 50 years but, in the meantime, competition for food, water, oil and gas will escalate.
Analysts point out that instabilities are more likely in areas of multiple environmental stress, where several of these factors apply. Failed states quickly become havens for transnational groups operating outside international norms. Climate change and sea level rise are likely to drive mass migration and inter-state tension. Indeed, concern over security of raw materials is already driving the re-emergence of new mercantile powers, such as China’s interest in Africa. The UK, on the other hand, will have limited financial muscle but a very strong interest in maintaining the smooth and reliable operation of the international markets on which the stability of its way of life depends.
Roll this forward 50 years and what we can see is that for the UK to maintain a broad range of capability in an uncertain world with limited budgets will require the very best that science and engineering can provide. It is disappointing then, that the National Security Strategy contained no reference to engineering advice. As the process moves from Green Paper to full Strategic Defence Review, it is essential that the voice of science and technology is loud and clear, not just for effective procurement, but for effective policy and strategy development in the first place.
Dr Scott Steedman FREng