The UK isn't ditching Boeing defence kit any time soon

Have you seen how dependent our armed forces are on them?

Boeing 737 Max
A Boeing 737 Max, one of the aircraft types central to the trade dispute

Analysis The British government is publicly threatening to stop giving defence contracts to American aerospace firm Boeing – even though this is laughably unrealistic.

Both the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary have, over the last couple of days, warned Boeing that it is undermining its relationship with the UK, in financial newswire Reuters’ words.

A trade spat between Boeing and Canada-headquartered Bombardier, whose civil aviation division is building a new airliner that threatens Boeing’s pre-eminent market position, prompted the US company to complain to US trade regulators. They slapped 220 per cent tariffs on Bombardier’s Cseries jets, which are light airliners that directly compete with the latest models of the Boeing 737.

Boeing formally accused Bombardier of receiving unfair state aid from the Canadian government, and of selling the Cseries aircraft to an American airline at below cost price. The American Federal Trade Commission, funnily enough, agreed with the American manufacturer.

The UK comes into this spat because Bombardier employs 4,200 people in Northern Ireland, of which around a thousand directly work on building Cseries wings. Hence why Sir Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, said: “This is not the behaviour we expect of Boeing and could indeed jeopardise our future relationship with Boeing.”

This is nonsense. Britain’s armed forces are heavily dependent upon Boeing products, and therefore ongoing Boeing support for them. These include:

  • the C-17 Globemaster heavy transport aircraft
  • the Chinook heavy helicopter
  • the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter (but see below)
  • the RC-135 Rivet Joint airborne signals intelligence aircraft
  • the E-3D Sentry airborne radar platform
  • the Harpoon anti-ship missile (under what used to be called McDonnell Douglas, until Boeing bought them out)
  • a signed purchase order for P-8 Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft

The Royal Air Force has no alternative to the C-17 in its fleet. The Army has no realistic alternative to the Apache attack helicopter, though its new Lynx Wildcat helicopters can mount anti-surface guided missiles. Naturally, the decades-old Sentry has no alternative in the RAF inventory. Similarly, the Rivet Joint aircraft have no long-haul RAF alternative. The Air Force also has modified Bombardier Global Express business jets performing ground surveillance duties under the service name Sentinel.

Alienating Boeing, therefore, would put the UK in a very difficult position. The Ministry of Defence did, in fact, do this very thing with Chinook helicopters several years ago, deciding that paying for Boeing’s own flight control software upgrades was too expensive. When the resulting homebrew upgrades failed to gain full certification from the MoD’s own military aviation regulators, however, something very interesting happened.

Boeing quietly agreed with the MoD that it would publicly carry the can for the ministry’s own cockup. Instead of admitting that it was too tight-arsed to pay for OEM software upgrades, the MoD told the world – seemingly with Boeing’s consent – that the dastardly American firm had outwitted the MoD’s contract negotiators. Of course, no such thing had happened.

Today, the UK’s ruling Conservative Party’s main political partner is the Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP not only provides the government’s majority in Parliament but has a number of seats in and around Belfast, where Bombardier’s Northern Ireland operations are headquartered. DUP MPs’ majorities there are relatively slim; two have majorities of just 2,000, in seats with more than 65,000 registered voters. In the context of an international trade spat, headlines shrieking about “thousands of jobs at risk” means local politicians are going to be demanding the government does something, indeed anything, to reassure their voters and protect their seats.

It is entirely probable that behind the scenes, Boeing and the government have agreed that the public shouting match won’t affect defence equipment support. Indeed, given how dependent the RAF is upon Boeing products, it’s hard to see how things could be going any other way.

The UK does have a little leverage: as the London bureau chief of Aviation Week magazine noted, only 38 of the UK’s 50 Apaches have been contracted: the final 12 are worth, very approximately, half a billion pounds or so. In addition, the MoD very recently (and very quietly) decided it wouldn’t bin the ageing Harpoon system next year after all, though that decision could easily be reversed. Boeing does offer upgrades to Harpoon, which doubtless have been offered to the UK.

Aside from that, though, all these high-level turds being flung at Boeing by Britain are unlikely to represent reality. With the UK defence budget as critically overstretched as it is, Boeing only has to threaten to raise prices in order to quieten British objections to its commercial behaviour. ®


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