When the first Farnborough air show took place in 1948, the UK was a very different place. Germany's defeat had left Britons buoyant but resigned to the fact that the cost of that conflict had plunged the country into deep depression.

However, the exploits of the Royal Air Force and an industry that had created formidable fighting machines from the Spitfire to the Lancaster bomber gave the government and aerospace chiefs faith that the UK could remain a pace-setter in a world that would soon enter an age of jet-powered long-haul travel, and require more advanced warplanes and technologies to counter a very different military threat.

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Back then, the Farnborough air show was run by the Society of British Aircraft Constructors – a predecessor of ADS – and open only to UK exhibitors. There were enough of them – airframers and their nationally based supply chains – to create a showcase that attracted a huge international audience.

At a time of tight resources, the government played a key role in directing investment and research and development priorities, most obviously on the military side, but also in terms of commercial programmes. However, with the industries in France and Germany decimated by the war, the UK and the USA remained the world's dominant aircraft producers.


The 70 years since have seen a whole lot of history: the Cold War, the revival of Germany and France, the space race, the European project, the fall of Communism, the rise of Asia. By the 21st century, the UK had gone from having half a dozen or more aircraft builders to just two – and none on the commercial side, if you do not count tiny Britten-Norman.

Aside from BAE Systems and engine-maker Rolls-Royce, much of the UK's major aerospace and defence footprint was by the early 2000s foreign owned or controlled, by the likes of Airbus, Leonardo, Thales, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, United Technologies, Safran and General Electric.

While some might bemoan the fact that the family silver has progressively been sold overseas, others welcome that formidable inward investment, ensuring the industry remains the world's second-largest by sales.

According to ADS, UK-based aerospace concerns turn over £35 billion ($46 billion) – with exports accounting for six-sevenths of that total – employ 123,000 directly, and have grown by almost 40% since 2012. From the plant in Broughton that produces every Airbus wing to hundreds of small and medium-sized enterprises, the UK still punches well above its weight in aerospace relative to the size of its economy.

They would also argue that, while overseas shareholders – and even, in some cases, governments – may control the industry's purse strings, intellectual property remains firmly in the UK, either through regulations (in the case of some sensitive military technologies) or practice.


British engineers have specialised in designing wings for decades – with university research labs generating much of the IP – and that is why Airbus and Bombardier have invested hundreds of millions in centres of excellence in Bristol, Broughton and Belfast.

However, another B-word arguably threatens that state of affairs. In June, Airbus warned that a failure by the UK government to secure a friction-free deal with the EU post Brexit in 2019 could endanger its investments in the UK. Just before the Farnborough air show, ADS chief executive Paul Everitt said a "worst case, no deal" scenario – where there is no arrangement for goods and services to cross the English Channel without checks and possible tariffs – would be "chaotic" for UK industry.

Even a settlement that leaves the country as a more expensive place to do business could "diminish our ability to attract investment", he says, although the impact might not be felt overnight. "Aerospace and defence are long-term businesses. When a big decision comes along – a new aircraft or some other major investment – we will not be so well placed. These are high-value activities that we treasure as a country that are likely to go somewhere else," he adds.

That said, while the Airbus UK production process is deeply entwined with the company's facilities in France, Germany and Spain, the industry is not solely dependent on trade with the EU. Boeing – which has very little direct industrial investment in the UK – buys components from dozens of British companies, spending £2.1 billion here in 2016.

Bombardier CSeries (now Airbus owned) composite wings are shipped from Belfast to Montreal. US implants owned by the likes of Raytheon and United Technologies produce systems, weapons and components for UK military aircraft that are also exported.

Major UK players such as BAE, aerostructures specialist GKN and aircraft systems supplier Meggitt also have sizeable investments overseas, including in the USA, where BAE is large enough to count as a prime contractor. Martin-Baker is one of a tiny handful of firms worldwide that make ejection seats for military aircraft. Rolls-Royce, one of the world's three big engine makers, makes most of its revenues on the commercial side from supporting a global fleet of installed engines.

Another area where ADS has concerns about the country's industrial future is the next-generation fighter. The UK is both an operator of the Lockheed Martin F-35 – in which BAE is a programme partner – and, through BAE, a shareholder in the four-nation Eurofighter Typhoon. However, unlike France, where Dassault has retained its capabilities to design and build its own "4.5"-generation fighter in the Rafale, it is unclear whether BAE would be able to go it alone with a successor to the Typhoon that would be required from the 2040s.


The UK government – which under former Prime Minister David Cameron signed a defence co-operation pact with France in 2010 that could be endangered by Brexit – plans to unveil a combat air strategy. ADS says the strategy needs to provide the investment to retain an independent combat air capability in the UK, and deliver an aircraft that could be supported by exports. Necessary steps, suggests the trade body, include establishing a "high-value" design centre. The combat air sector currently contributes to the UK economy £8.3 billion in turnover and creates 31,000 jobs, says ADS.

With 29 country pavilions and 48 countries represented as exhibitors this year, the modern Farnborough air show is more of a global aerospace gathering than the shop window for the UK industry it was until 40 or 50 years ago.

However, throughout the halls and chalets, home-grown companies will be making their presence felt. There may never be another new all-British aircraft in the display, but most of the types represented at the show will have a significant contribution from the country's aerospace sector beneath the skin. Like the show itself, UK industry is more international than ever.

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Source: Flight Daily News