BAE Systems Tempest concept Jul18FCAS from Dassault website Jun20

Airbus Defence and Space chief Dirk Hoke has called for a merger of the UK-led Tempest next-generation combat jet (left) with the Franco-German Future Combat Air System (FCAS – right). In a video lecture for the Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS), he said “we cannot afford two systems of that size…the market is too small”.

I’m sure he is right. But here’s a question: should serious money be spent on either of them, at least until the next decade?

In a post-virus world, we must determine what the real threats to our security are, and then match our defence posture to meet them. Let’s be realistic – defence has been struggling to build a constituency for some years now. Now debt-laden governments are faced with unprecedented virus recovery costs. Hoke made a plea for Europe not to cut defence budgets since that “would undermine our resilience to the next crisis.”

Maybe so. But what will the next crisis be? In a short but thoughtful piece on the RAeS website entitled “Future Shock”, most of the threats that were listed could not be countered by conventional weaponry…tanks, ships, planes. Instead, they included denial of space capabilities; chemical and biological hazards; major terrorist attacks; and cyber warfare that could include large-scale hacking, attacks on critical national infrastructure, threats to precise timing systems, and media manipulation.

New combat aircraft won’t be any help here. Their proponents talk of preserving and enhancing vital aerospace engineering skills. But those skills could be better directed to the development of new forms of propulsion such as electric and solar; new aerodynamic techniques such a shape-shifting; the application of artificial intelligence and machine learning to avionics, and so on. Years ago, it could be argued that investment in defence technology led to useful civilian spin-off – for instance microwave ovens. Not any more. Today, the type of technology that could counter the new threats described above, is mainly developed in the commercial world.

Another argument for combat aircraft is that they preserve the sovereignty of Europe’s airspace. Of course they do. But why cannot the current fleets of very capable jets – Eurofighter, Gripen, Rafale – serve that purpose well into the next decade? In particular, the UK taxpayer is entitled to ask why new planes are needed when billions of pounds have been spent on the Eurofighter, and now billions more are being spent to acquire F-35s.

A third argument is that combat aircraft have been prominently engaged in protecting European interests overseas. But the European public has grown weary of expeditionary warfare. Even the RUSI think-tank, which is closely allied to the British defence establishment, now believes that the interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have been “strategic failures”.

Last January, former British defence chief Lord Houghton acknowledged that “we do not live in the most dangerous of times”. He spoke of the rise of hybrid warfare: malevolent state activity below the conventional threshold of war. Furthermore, he warned that “national military nostalgia” over maintaining sovereign assets could cloud “rational judgment” about pooling resources with other nations.

Which brings us back to Dirk Hoke’s lecture. His plea for greater European defence collaboration is valid – despite Brexit. But we should be joining forces to counter the threats of today and tomorrow, not of yesterday.

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