On both sides of the Atlantic, the debate about government spending in this time of austerity is taking on increasingly apocalyptic tones. The governments' need to grapple with debt crises threatens - we are warned with ever-greater urgency - to discard a Western aerospace technology superiority built up over the best part of a century. Meanwhile, spending cuts will deprive the industry of the fuel that has made it a driver of desperately needed economic growth.
Not surprisingly, one of the most vocal doomsayers is the US Aerospace Industries Association (AIA). Faced with severe - and possibly automatic - defence spending cuts, AIA president Marion Blakey has gone on the offensive. In Blakey, who headed the Federal Aviation Administration before moving over to lead the AIA, the US industry has as strident a lobbyist as can be hired. Last week, she actually joined forces with the IAM machinists' union - typically a thorn in the industry's side - to warn Washington that saving $45 billion in annual spending would slash $85 billion from the economy and bump up unemployment by 0.6%.
Also last month, Boeing Commercial Airplanes boss Jim Albaugh, in his capacity as AIA chairman, called on national leaders on both sides of the Atlantic to remember, as they grapple with financial crises, that aerospace is not a cost - it is an investment. The AIA's opposite number in the UK, the ADS, forecast that up to 30,000 jobs will go as defence spending gets trimmed. Airbus boss Tom Enders, speaking as head of Germany's aerospace association, has echoed a widely expressed sentiment in warning that defence cuts will lead to a permanent loss of technological capability.
While it is no surprise to hear that from the industry, it is notable that no less august a body than the UK's Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) has joined the fray. Dating back to 1847 - its first president was "father of the railways" George Stephenson -
IMechE is proudly independent of government and business. And IMechE is alarmed.
Its immediate concern is for the UK, but its reasoning applies equally well throughout the West. While quiet on the impact of buying more or less fighter jets, IMechE knows what it is talking about when it says that strategic and intensive government support for basic aeronautics research is the only way to we can hope to develop technology that will define the aircraft of the future. If those aircraft are to be Western, we had better keep the R&D machine spinning at full throttle.
(The above article appeared as the main leader piece in the 1 November issue of Flight International. We will be running every Flight International weekly leader in this blog)