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United Kingdom : Critical technologies and industrial capabilities

Dernière mise à jour : 15 juil.

This text analyses the way the UK addresses dependencies on critical technologies within the defence industry. It shows that the UK has developed a complex and exhaustive policy framework to identify key technologies, application areas and industrial capabilities for the future of British armed forces. It also details the mechanisms the British DoD set up to support the preservation and / or the development of its autonomy in these domains.


By Trevor Taylor* I Armament Industry European Research Group


UK official stances have slightly different purposes and foci of attention, and a reasonable question concerns how they will be carried forward in an integrated manner. This short paper address four somewhat different but related questions:

  • Which technologies will be of key importance for defence looking forwards ?

  • Which defence industrial capabilities does the British Government want to sustain and develop ?

  • In which areas of technology does the Ministry of Defence feel its needs solid expertise ?

  • How are priority areas for innovation being pursued ?

However, in terms of policy context, it is necessary to note that the British Government aspires to enjoy discretion about where, where when and how it uses its armed forces, which is summarised in the 2021 Integrated Review and its subsidiary documents, Defence in a Competitive Age and the Defence & Security Industrial Strategy (DSIS), as ‘operational independence’. These policy stances also stressed the UK as having global interests and expecting to play a significant international military in multiple areas of the world. Operational independence implies limited reliance on others for support to military equipment and also the ability to upgrade equipment and modify it as needed for particular operations. This in turn implies access to a capable national defence industrial base which has access to the technologies needed for internationally competitive equipment. Thus, UK defence technology stances would likely have a very different agenda were UK defence policy to prioritise a narrow range of NATO roles.


WHICH TECHNOLOGIES WILL BE OF KEY IMPORTANCE ?


The Ministry of Defence has developed a framework of seven key ‘technology families’ and nine areas of application.1 While some technologies have clearly apparent areas of application, the MoD has not publicly mapped which technologies relate particularly to which uses. Many of the technologies have been defined as priority areas by other NATO partners and in many ways can be seen as conventional Western wisdom on the topic. Notably, space is classed as an area of application rather than a technology family.


A widely acknowledged feature of the several critical technologies for defence is that they are of greater importance for the civil, commercial world. They should thus be seen in terms of any national technology approaches overall 2 and also in the context of private sector investments in research and development.


In the key technology families, the Government feels in many cases that the country begins from a strong base, not least in artificial intelligence, advanced materials and electronics, where much of the expertise has emerged from the university sector. The area around Cambridge has emerged as a particular hub.


However, when attention is turned to the perspectives of the individual commands, the MoD’s own scientific community, and what is expected of different industrial sectors, somewhat differing and longer lists emerge.


WHICH DEFENCE INDUSTRIAL CAPABILITIES DOES THE UK WISH TO SUSTAIN AND DEVELOP ?


The UK has a growing series of established and novel defence industrial strategies focused largely but not exclusively on the capability to develop and build platforms and individual systems while leaving more open what sub-system and component capacity should be retained or developed. It has long felt the need to sustain the ability to design, develop and support nuclear weapons and nuclear submarines. Its explicit intention to maintain the ability to develop and build ‘complex weapons’ dates back to the 2005 Defence Industrial Strategy and is effected in 2022 through the Complex Weapons Portfolio in which the MoD and an industrial team led by MBDA work in partnership.


The practice of the UK designing and building its own warships was formalised in policy through the National Shipbuilding Strategy of 20173 This document was ‘refreshed’ in March 20224 with warships being set alongside an ambition to revive the shipbuilding sector as whole. However, the NSS kept its focus on the building of ships rather than diverting much attention to important sub-systems and technologies.


There was however considerable attention given to reduce the carbon footprint of the maritime sector and some concern with the UK capacity to produce steel for ships. The document did include a Royal Navy Technology Roadmap (p55) which specified greener technology as industry driven, Defence-driven technologies were specified as involving resilient and improved communications, underwater communications, radar, novel sensors and complex weapons, open architecture combat management systems, laser and directed energy weapons, cyber and electronic warfare, flexible command spaces and replenishment at sea.


The aspiration not to lose the capacity to design, develop and build its own combat aircraft was articulated in the Combat Air Strategy of 2018.5 The implementation if this latter area was notable in that the industrial team from the beginning included the key engine, avionics and weapons suppliers and has since been widened to bring in other firms. Features of this domain include a stress on government and industry operating in partnership, and an emphasis on working with collaborative partners.


A Land Systems Industrial Strategy (LIS) was released in May 2022 and included a list of key ‘game changing technologies’: Artificial Intelligence, Advanced materials science, survivability and protection; Electrification, hybrid propulsion and power generation; Novel and directed energy weapons; Networks and sensors; Robotics, automation and human-machine teaming; Sythetic environments, System and systems of systems integration; and Human optimisation, enhancement and augmentation. This one of the areas where the Government is looking to foreign investment in the UK for industrial capability and development. The LIS also recognises that the exploitation of all possible technology potential will involve collaborative work with NATO states and other partners. As in other areas, the LIS promotes partnered working between industry and government.

The rotor craft sector dominated by Leonardo still lacks a formal strategic approach.
The Government also recognises that it needs a high-level sovereign capability in defensive cyber.

Space is an unusual sector for UK defence because for many years the UK was content to rely on the US for surveillance and intelligence-gathering systems and of course GPS. The UK abandoned its own space launch plans in the late 1950s and chose not to participate in the Ariane programme. It did, however, through an Airbus-led consortium, fund the provision of the Skynet communications satellites. Space was not even addressed as an industrial sector in the 2005 Defence Industrial Strategy. However, by 2021 the Government had realised that significant achievements in space had become more affordable and that, largely of its own accord, the space industry in the UK had developed well. In the Defence and Security Industrial Strategy and the National Space Strateg