Wales has emerged as one of the UK's foremost regions for aerospace and defence thanks to a Darwinian ability to adapt to a slew of economic blows that saw most of its traditional - and even more recent - industries wiped out in the 1980s. Taking the place of the coal mines, steel plants and car factories is a handful of high-tech businesses who - while not mass employers in the historic sense - are creating what the Welsh Assembly Government calls a "knowledge-based" economy in some of the most formerly depressed parts of the principality.

Aerospace is crucial to this high-skill sector and major employers include EADS in Newport, where the European giant has a defence and security systems business as well as two research and development centres, British Airways' avionics engineering unit at Pontyclun near Cardiff, General Electric and precision engine components manufacturer Doncasters, which has a plant specialising in engine blades and casings at Blaenavon, near Abergavenny.

Welsh dragon
 © Rex Features/Gareth Burgess

There are also a number of small and medium-size enterprises in south Wales, among them aircraft seat-maker Contour, wire-marking specialist Spectrum Technologies and composite structures manufacturer United Aerospace.

Wales can additionally claim Airbus's wing-assembly plant at Broughton, just over the border from the English city of Chester, and also home to Raytheon Systems and its former sister company Hawker Beechcraft's service centre. Two assembly government-owned former military bases in the principality, in St Athan near Cardiff and Aberporth on the west Wales coast, are being developed as, respectively, the UK's privately run defence technical college and a centre for testing unmanned air vehicles.

Like all economically vulnerable regions, Wales has been keen to create careers for graduates and talented school-leavers to stop them leaving the country, rather than depending on lower-paid assembly-line or service-sector jobs. Its strategy includes fostering regional supply chains and clusters of like-minded enterprises, where companies and academic institutions can form partnerships and share technologies, and recruit from a pool of skilled potential employees.

It sounds simple, of course, but in reality kickstarting this sort of cluster-based growth has not always been straightforward. The remoteness of the ParcAberporth UAV park and the failure as yet of UAV technologies to properly break through into the civil sector have proved deterrents to the sort of investment and job creation the assembly government might like.

At the same time, the downturn in the industry is hurting many manufacturing companies in south Wales who ultimately depend on the airline market. The defence and security market has been more lucrative for Wales, but here too there have been challenges. The assembly government was handed responsibility for a redundant brand new "superhangar" at St Athan, when responsibility for maintaining the Royal Air Force's frontline fleet was removed from the then Defence Aviation Repair Agency. Only after a long contest was the facility chosen over rival English sites as the base for the new defence training academy.

In reality the Welsh aerospace industry is far from a distinct entity. Businesses along the M4 corridor share more ties with aerospace companies across the Severn in Bristol and the west of England than they do with Airbus and other enterprises in Broughton, which is viewed as part of the north-west of England aerospace cluster in Cheshire and Lancashire. However, thanks to devolution, the principality's aerospace industry can rely on the political and budgetary clout of politicians in Cardiff, for whom aerospace and defence fits nicely the image of a new, confident, high-tech Wales and who are ready to embrace investors with open arms.

Source: Flight International