The UK has a proud record and continuing technological expertise in aerospace. The industry employs more than 600,000 people directly and some two million indirectly, and is by far the second largest aerospace sector worldwide - lagging only the US. Yet we have taken a disconcertingly long time to come up with a national strategy that will sustain that position in the global market.

Despite its impressive position, and despite producing and sustaining two global players and a huge body of niche manufacturers with world reputations, the UK's aerospace industry has rarely spoken with one voice and has seldom articulated how it could develop its excellence further to overcome ever-stiffer competition from industrial rivals.

Coming from a history of whole aircraft capability, UK industry has persisted as a set of inter-trading suppliers serving the requirements of government, international aircraft manufacturers and the airlines, without necessarily a coherent national strategy. While it did well, it might have done better.

The recently published Trade and Industry Committee report, The UK Aerospace Industry (5 April 2005), reveals an encouraging level of insight into what the UK government and the industrial complex must do in order for the UK to retain its position in the global aerospace community as an innovator and world leader.

As outlined in the report, we now have the beginnings of an industry strategy - a vision - for growth and innovation. Through the Aerospace Innovation and Growth Team (AeIGT) promoted by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and supported by aerospace firms large and small, the UK industry has formed a coherent group and agreed clear priorities.

The emergence of such a strategy is of vital importance not only to the future of the industry, but also to the UK's future wealth and position as a competitor in world technology. The aerospace sector is more than just a single industry; it is a powerful mechanism for pulling through technologies, which in turn feed other industries.

For example, £5 billion ($9 billion) is generated every year by Formula 1, an industry in its own right but one which would be impossible to imagine without the innovative influence of aerospace technology. It is this powerful ripple effect throughout the UK economy which makes the aerospace industry so important, and investment in innovation so key.


The economic contribution the industry makes to 'UK plc' is very significant. In 2003 the UK aerospace industry produced a turnover of more than £17 billion and captured 10% of the world market for aerospace products. In 2002, the industry accounted for just over 4% of UK manufactured output and directly contributed to just over £5.5 billion to the UK gross value added (GVA).

But this position may slip if the UK industry loses sight of its leadership vision and its desire to innovate by becoming too risk-averse.

Successive UK governments have recognised this, playing a key role by providing long-term investment and support for the aerospace industry. However, over the past few years, the UK government's support for aerospace R&D has changed. Instead of programmes targeted at large-scale projects specifically in the aerospace sector, the DTI now operates a Technology Programme for R&D as a whole.

While many companies, including QinetiQ, have benefited from the Technology Programme, it may not necessarily be working in the best interests of the country as far as competitiveness in the aerospace sector is concerned, although it must be recognised that the Technology Programme is relatively new.

In many ways the UK would do well to learn from the North American example. There, the role of government procurement in the innovation process is an enormously potent one. 

For a national strategy to work, its objectives have to be shared by industry and government. With the growing emergence of a national strategy from the AeIGT there is a sense of promise for what can be achieved.

But promise is not enough. We must not be complacent in the face of growth from would-be competitors. The UK government must closely monitor and, if necessary, reconsider the architecture of its funding mechanisms for aerospace R&D.

While it generally will be hard for competing countries to catch up, it would be perfectly possible for the UK to destroy its own position through a loss of vision and commitment to innovation and - crucially - its application.

It is this commitment, through targeted and focused funding, which is sorely needed.


Source: Flight Daily News