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Is Typhoon the end of history for UK aerospace?

No question about it -- the Brits have given the world some classic combat aircraft: The Spitfire. The Harrier. The Fairey Gannet. The Buccaneer. Their joint ventures with European partners have also been successful, including the Jaguar, the Tornado and most recently, the Eurofighter Typhoon. But the outgoing boss of UK aerospace supplier GKN warns that with the realities of the defense world today, the Typhoon could be Britain's last fighter -- and it's only a portion British to begin with.

GKN CEO Kevin Smith tells Defence Management that for all the Typhoon's success and its futre prospects as an export fighter in India and elsewhere, the UK and Europe have nothing in the hopper. The Typhoon is the payoff of decisions made years ago, Smith argues, and unless Euro-leaders get something going now, it could be the end of the British defense aerospace industry, at least, if not all of Europe's.

Here's how Smith put it to Defence Management's Anthony Hall:

When asked how easy it would be in his opinion to raise technology in the UK back up to the highest level, Smith is less than optimistic: "I think we have lost a lot. When I worked in the Military Aircraft Division at British Aerospace in the 1990s, we were producing the two variants of the Tornado – the IDS and the ADB – in collaboration. We had Sea Harrier incorporated in production and we had the AV8 in collaboration with the US Marine Corps, which then went back into the Royal Air Force for the GR7 and the Harrier TMK10. We had the 60, 100 and 200 series Hawk and the T45 Hawk collaboration for the US Navy, and we were doing the early phases of development of Eurofighter. Then in the latter part of the 1990s, we moved into the Nimrod programme. A lot of the capability to do that has gone, and continues to disappear. We don't make a whole aircraft anymore and have probably lost that capability as a nation."

While stressing that collaboration is important, and that sustaining the capability to develop advanced systems and weapons systems across Europe is key, he concedes that nationally, once the UK loses its own capability, it cannot be rebuilt: "It goes, and I think that is demonstrated by how the aerospace industry, although it still has a strong position globally, is substantially based on decisions that were made a long time ago."

Once again, the Eurofighter/Typhoon provides a pertinent example. Launched in the late 80s and early 90s, it is viewed today by most of those outside the UK aerospace industry as its defining aircraft. However, this owes little to current practices, Smith explains: "The industry we have today is not a product of what's happened over the last two or five years. It's a product of what happened 10 years ago. The decisions we take or don't take now affect the ability to sustain the industry in the next 10-15 years. The Typhoon could be the last hurrah."

This is why a new European aircraft programme is so important, he says. "In the US, you have the JSF Programme, which is just starting to come into production, and behind that, they have programmes that they're demonstrating technology on today, which are going to be the production programmes in 10 or 15 years' time." The concern, he says, is that the UK isn't developing a demonstration phase.

Britain isn't even sure it'll be able to afford all the F-35C Lightning IIs it wants for its new aircraft carriers, to say nothing of building its own new next-generation fighter. What's more, although you can say what you want about the problems with the F-35 program, it will provide Britain with its first stealthy, most advanced fighter -- such a leap past the Typhoon that it would be a major challenge for the UK or a Euro-consortium to trump it anytime soon.

What Britain and Europe must count on is their ability to continue exporting Typhoons as long as possible, and hope their economies improve enough to start thinking about the next big thing.

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