FARNBOROUGH: Blakey: time to invest in the special relationship

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Keep investing in aviation or risk losing our hard-won position of world leadership. That's the message from Marion Blakey, former head of the Federal Aviation Administration and now chief executive of US industry body the Aerospace Industries Association.

Delivering the second annual Amy Johnson Named Lecture at the Royal Aeronautical Society on the eve of the Farnborough air show, RAeS fellow Blakey stressed her conviction that the so-called "special relationship" between the US and the UK is alive and well, adding that even though companies in the two countries are rivals as often as collaborators, the "English-speaking democracies" share a unique responsibility as "defenders of Western values".

But, she warned, budget-cutting on both sides of the Atlantic is threatening the technological and infrastructural patrimony that has been built up during the past 60 years. Citing examples such as a US air traffic management system that dates to the Second World War and recent NASA cuts that threaten to leave the US with a gap in its satellite weather forecasting capability for the first time since the 1960s - at a time, ironically, when Washington DC is being hammered by storms and was even hit recently by a tornado - Blakey bemoaned the imminent "sequestration" of the federal government budget that will strip $1.2 trillion from spending over the next decade.

Those cuts, she warned, will undermine the realisation of the Next Gen air traffic control network, the counterpart to Europe's also-delayed SESAR modernisation, and slash other defence, aerospace and research and development investment.

The threat, she said, is three-fold. Failure to invest in infrastructure such as Next Gen and SESAR will hinder economic growth. Failure to invest in R&D has already turned the US from a net exporter of high technology products to a net importer. And, failure to maintain and develop the technological edge that underpins transatlantic military capability will end up with Washington and London unable to rely on the force capability they have become accustomed to.

The average USAF fighter is 22 years old, she observed; bombers are 35 years old and the tanker fleet averages 47 years.

Budget pressures for both governments, she said, are certainly real, adding: "The US is fortunate to start from a much higher baseline. Austerity is a relative term when you're talking about a $525 billion defence budget."

And, she noted, there is a huge problem in that defence aerospace industrial capacity of the US and UK vastly exceeds all possible demand, even adding in sales to allies.

Meanwhile, the Chinese are spending heavily to build their own capabilities. A "reality check" on China, she said, would note that the much-heralded AVIC C919 airliner project is an attempt to reproduce an aircraft similar to the Boeing 737, which first flew in the 1960s, and China faces serious challenges, as its government's authority depends on sustaining unsustainable rates of economic growth.

However, said Blakey, the Chinese are a genuine threat: "The Boeing-Airbus duopoly is no longer a sure thing, even in the next five years."

The West, she said, must therefore be bold and creative, and leverage its "unique advantages" of entrepreneurial spirit and programme management skills. Three key areas of development could, she believes, pave the way to consolidating US-UK leadership in aerospace: unmanned systems, for military but especially civil use; commercial spaceflight; and cybersecurity.

Most of all, she said, to bridge the "growing gap" between demands and resources will take an "unprecedented" level of collaboration between countries. Agreements between the UK and France to jointly develop aircraft carriers and unmanned systems should, said Blakey, be a model for US-UK collaboration.

The alternative, she said, is to allow the special relationship "to become idle rhetoric".