Thursday, 16 April 2020

Could Britain rapid re-arm?

One of the features of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the amazing response - both here in the UK and around the world - of various enterprises rising to the occasion and turning their brains and their factory space over to tackling the most pressing problems caused by the crisis. As I type this a number of different manufacturing consortiums just in this country alone are pumping out ventilators and CPAP machines at an impressive rate, along with a variety of apparel manufacturers who have turned their hands to making protective clothing, and everyone from large manufacturers to school teachers and home enthusiasts are using 3D printers to pump out components for face masks and other PPE, as well as sub-components for some of the aforementioned ventilator and CPAP designs.

If Britain is "at war" to use a turn of phrase that has become immensely popular all of a sudden, then Britain most definitely has embraced the idea of a war economy. Which is interesting because people often wonder (at least in defence circles on Twitter) how would Britain cope if it had to recapture the spirit of the second world war and go into a state of rapid rearmament? Could we do it? Could we match our forebears achievements in pumping out Spitfires and Lancasters and Halifaxes by the thousand? Could we manufacture small arms at a similar rate, sufficient to equip a modern day army group of a dozen divisions?

Well in a way it's a somewhat redundant question. Wars like that of 1939-45 don't come around very often. In fact we haven't had one since 1945. In part because we're a bit short of that toxic mix of mad, dictatorial regimes that possess populist support, a large economic base, a superiority complex and ambitions of regional domination. In part because of the growth of alliances such as NATO, which mean that any would be aggressor is threatened with the prospect of being met by overwhelming military force right from the very start. And in large part because nuclear weapons are now a thing that exists, making large scale, persistent and bloody warfare of the kind seen during the second world war a risky thing to trigger to say the least.

That element of alliances though is a strong driver in its own right. By pooling resources an alliance such as NATO effectively allows a threatened member state to tap into a supply of aircraft, ships, tanks and manpower far beyond its capacity to sustain alone, that can be mobilised to meet a potential aggressor. But if we really insisted on asking the question, hypothetically at least, could the UK really ramp up military production ready for a potential conflict on a mass scale?

One of the initial problems to define is who is on whose side? This makes a big difference in terms of who you can rely upon for production support and for raw material supplies. Just for a moment lets think about Germany. Germany now is a huge exporter of goods with lots of industry available to it. What it lacks is natural resources, of just about every type, which was a familiar problem to military planners even in the second world war.

Part of the reason for Germany choosing to invade Norway was to guarantee its supplies of iron ore from Sweden, especially in the winter months when the Baltic sea became difficult to traverse. Without Romanian oil it's also difficult to see how Germany could have sustained operations for any prolonged period of time. Allies matter in more ways than one.

The UK itself relied heavily on shipments of raw materials from across the globe, and ultimately leaned heavily on allies such as the US and Canada for production as well as food and materials, in much the same way that Germany relied on both its allies and occupied nations to provide it with some of the above. That situation is similar today, and reminds us in relation to my post on globalisation the other day that no matter how much some people want to see the UK disconnect itself from certain parts of the world, there are some areas in which there really is little choice.

If we assume allied support permits the supply of all necessary raw materials though, then we're in good shape. What the recent pandemic has done is to remind people just how good UK engineering is and how widespread it is, although unfortunately that element is already being played down by some and it doesn't get enough air time in the daily press conferences for my liking.

There is a tendency for a lot of people to think that the UK doesn't do much manufacturing anymore, but as anyone who follows me on Twitter will know I'm always keen to try and dispel that myth. The UK actually does a lot of it, and much of it is very high quality in nature. Importantly the variety of said manufacturing covers, or could cover, just about every area of military production you might require.

Aside from the blunt observation that the UK already makes a variety of military equipment such as fighter jets and helicopters, the capacity and skills exist within the economy to greatly expand current production and to turn our hands to a variety of systems not currently produced domestically. If we take tanks as an example, the UK has just about every sub-facet of the production process covered if need be.

There are for example a good number of companies in the UK that manufacture and/or service trains. Along with their skilled workforce and their experience at working with everything from heavy duty suspensions and engines to aluminium bodies, they also have facilities equipped with internal cranes that are more than capable of handling the movement of turrets if needs be. 

The UK is also replete with a vast number of companies that can do virtually any fabrication task you require, from casting and welding, to pressing, cutting, forming, bending, drilling, milling, rolling and more, to produce pretty much any component or sub-component you can think of, be  it turrets, armoured hulls, tracks, engines, gears, or tank barrels. It's all there, people just don't pay any attention to it.

As far as engines specifically are concerned, take your pick. The UK is a renowned automotive hub and has a virtual laundry list of companies that can design and manufacture engines of a variety of sizes and specifications, many of them with experience in high performance products. Critically they can team with larger manufacturers to tap into their production line experience in order to scale up their production capacity with relative ease. Which is probably a good point for us to diverge away from the specifics of any one element and think about the idea more broadly. 

In most cases in the second world war and the run up to it one of two things happened with respect to large production facilities. Either a) they were converted from their original production purpose to some new purpose, or b) they were built from scratch, with a specific production task in mind. A good example of the second type was the Castle Bromwich facility, which was built in 1936 on the site of an old sewage works and went on to produce over 12,000 Spitfires - more than half of all the Spitfires produced in the war - churning out around 320 of them per month. The site is now owned and operated to this day by Jaguar Land Rover.

Not only does the UK have plenty of space to build such works if necessary, but it already has a lot of industrial units ready to go. Virtually every town in the UK of a decent size has a number of large industrial units being used either by supermarkets or other large retailers. Presumably in a crunch their current occupants could politely (or rudely, depending on your preference) be asked to vacate their premises and make way for a variety of manufacturers, with some conversion work of course.

Have I mentioned yet the exisiting production capacity of companies like JCB, with multiple sites across the UK making things like backhoes and excavators, along with the engines and powertrains for such? Alexander Dennis (buses)? Dennis Eagle (bin lorries)? Leyland trucks (guess what they make)? WrightBus (just about, and again guess what they make?). What about the multitude of car production lines run by a variety of large automotive manufacturers such as the previously mentioned Jaguar Land Rover, as well as BMW/Mini, Nissan, Vauxhall, Opel, Honda and Toyota, along with a variety of smaller but more specialist companies like Aston Martin and Bentley?

Then of course there is the crown jewel of the British automotive sector: Formula One.

The headlines have already widely publicised their exploits in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic, so I'll not repeat those here. Suffice to say that there are seven F1 teams with operations in the UK and although their production numbers in relation to their cars are very small, F1 teams represent a phenomenal resource base. Aside from their high precision manufacturing systems and the fact most teams have everything from their own supercomputers to wind tunnels for aiding analysis, F1 teams really shine in terms of their knowledge base.

Some of the best and brightest minds in the field of aerodynamics work in F1. The cars themselves are masterpieces of engineering, with all manner of little wings, surfaces and other precisely (and very deliberately) positioned aerodynamic elements that come together to generate the awesome amounts of downforce that help make F1 cars so fast in the corners. Their engines in and of their own right are masterpieces of high precision, high performance engineering, though rules changes in recent years have tried to temper the cost of them.

Then there's the suspensions. And the drive trains. And the electronics. And the ergonomics. The list goes on and on. It is difficult to understate just how much time, money and thought goes into producing an F1 car, and in turn just how much latent potential resides within F1 teams in terms of the engineering brain power and the design brilliance they can rapidly bring to bear, as has been demonstrated recently.

Gloriously, F1 teams simply represent the pinnacle of British motorsport, not the be all and end all of it. The country is home to around two dozen other manufacturers who either have a big presence in high end motorsport or are involved in the production of supercars for the high-end consumer market. Again they represent not only a strong base of skills and experience in high quality manufacturing, but a source of engineering grey matter.

Moving to aerospace, which has an overlap here with what we've just been discussing, the experience base goes beyond just the obvious main player of BAE systems, who themselves have been involved in one of the ventilator consortiums among other things. Airbus, Leonardo, Thales, Rolls-Royce, MBDA, QinetiQ, Bombardier, GKN, Cobham, Marshall, and GE Aviation are all some of the big names with a strong presence in the UK. If you really want to be pedantic then you also have things like the Boeing actuator factory in Sheffield as well.

More generally this gives us an insight into just how many companies with military relevant skills have UK operations. The design and development base exists, along with a degree of manufacturing expertise, experience and capacity, which in turn could be married with the wider UK manufacturing base to make the ends meet.

Smalls arms is another good example of this. Although the UK is not a big small arms producer, indeed it isn't even really a small small arms producer, it does have a lot of manufacturing capacity spread across the country that could turn its hand to small arms (and in some case bigger arms) production with a relative degree of ease due to the widespread and varied production base that exists in UK light industry.

Perhaps the blip would come in the naval sphere. While there is a number of companies doing shipbuilding, arguably there is less existing capacity for the sort of manufacturing and assembly that might be required to "rebuild" of sorts the navy. Here is really where the question of time frames comes into play.

Just how much lead time is anticipated in this fictitous scenario? Although prior to the second world war the UK didn't really get firing on all cyclinders until much closer to wartime, a degree of rearmament had already taken place several years beforehand. The Hurricane and Spitfire for example had their first flights in 1935 and 1936 respectively, both entering service around two years later in 1937 and 1938. Assuming a longer lead time gives you more scope for trying to find suitable sites for naval construction yards, as well as time to get them up and running.

It is something of a myth that in 1939 military production across the continent just suddenly began in earnest after the shock of war starting. The process had started much, much earlier than that, with the "Ten Year Rule" - which stipulated that the UK would not be involved in another great war for at least ten years - being abandoned in 1932 as a result of Japanese aggression in Manchuria, before Adolf Hitler even rose to power in Germany. And if you want an interesting and somewhat ironic factoid, both the architect of the Ten Year Rule and its biggest cheerleader for many years was one Winston Churchill...

And so when this hypothetical question that we're examining today is asked people often falsely assume that the moment is likely to just suddenly leap on the UK, much as the Covid-19 pandemic did. In all probability a scenario that required "re-armament" as an urgent government priority would likely involve a period of ramp up ahead of the hypothecated "war". That in turn gives us a bit of breathing room for, among other things, preparing better facilities for naval construction.

The final advantage that accrues to us, though admittedly it accrues to other would-be combatants as well, is the nature of what would need to be produced in terms of its quality and lifespan. The ventilators and other breathing aids being produced to meet the shortage are impressive, but also somewhat crude in nature. They're not designed to be the full bells and whistles products the NHS would normally expect, although they aren't off by that much of a margin.

So it is with rapid re-arming. That timeless phrase, "perfection is the enemy of good enough", resonates once again. In a time compressed situation it may not be necessary to have every last piece of equipment be a 100%, best in class solution. As an example, if you needed to start pumping out brand new jet fighters in a hurry, and for whatever reason you decide you need to start from scratch, you might consider the possibility of leaving off the typical requirement for "relaxed stability", i.e. the tendancy of a modern fighter aircraft to want to kill the pilot by spontaneously careening out of control and into the ground without the aid of a flight computer.

This doesn't completely diminsh some of the challenges of building modern military equipment, but it does at least provide a little wiggle room. It's worth remembering as well that in the same way that many of these new ventilator designs have been whizzed through the approvals process, so in a time of need many of the tests normally required of military equipment would likely either be dropped outright or the equipment would be allowed to proceed into production while accepting certain known risks regarding its safety.

It helps that money tends to also be less of an issue in a time of crisis. While in peace time testing might proceed at a more sedate pace, in a time constrained scenario the expecation would be for a much faster process of prototyping and testing to get equipment ready for the frontline sooner, with money being far more readily available to grease the gears and get things moving. 

On the flip side to all these positives, fundamentally I see four major challenges going forward: People, Process, Products, and Politics. I'm not sure if those are all necessarily the best descriptors, but they all begin with a 'P' and so they line up nice and neatly, and it looks like I've put more thought into this than I actually have.

People relates to making sure we have the very best engineers and other minds available to work on the problems. That's less of an issue here in the UK due to the quality and reputation of our universities (at least some of them) and the UK actually being pretty good at recruiting and training apprentices. The flag comes from the new immigration system, where the possession of a PhD is only worth the same number of points as the ability to speak English and is considered less valuable and earns you less points than a job offer from an approved sponsor. A STEM PhD is only worth the same as the job offer. 

If you're asking me, which you aren't but tough it's my article, high levels of education should be much better rewarded as is typical in systems such as the Canadian immigration system. A recognised STEM PhD and you can speak English? I don't see many good arguments against letting someone like that in with or without a job offer.

Process is essentially the risk inherent with asking the government to manage something competently. This was always my major fear about Brexit for example and represented for me the greatest risk; that it would be left in the hands of politicians to organise it. The MoD can barely manage its currentt budget and with quite relaxed time scales to get things done. It would be interesting to see how it coped with trying to manage a greatly enlarged budget and with far less time for decision making. And by "interesting", I of course mean "terrifying". 

Products is what we discussed earlier vis a vis (Yeah! Getting posh!) the access to raw materials. But 'raw materials' doesn't start with a 'P' so I went with 'products' instead. It's all very well having all this manufacturing capacity, but if you can't acquire the steel or the aluminium or whatever it is you need, then you're not going to be building much of anything.

The final one, Politics, relates to international relations and the ability of the UK to obtain not just the resources it needs but the support it needs from allies. Rapid rearmament is all well and good, but even working flat out it's likely the UK would need to buy from elsewhere as a supplement, or else license out production work as it did for example in the 1940s, unless of course we're being ultra specific about our hypothetical scenario which requires some rearmament but not too much rearmament. 

All in all then, I think we're pretty well set. Yes there are challenges in these types of scenarios, but I honestly think people over play the idea of British manufacturing being dead. No, we don't build iPhones. No, we don't build oil tankers. But manufacturing still represents around 11% of UK GDP annually and produces around £400 billion of products, depending on whose numbers you use. That's pretty impressive.

So sleep tight. The answer to the hypothetical and somewhat unlikely scenario "could the UK rapidly re-arm for war?" is pretty much yes. Let's just hope we never have to test that conclusion.


If you want to watch something related to this article for a half-hour, then below is a good film about the B-24 production line at Willow Run, Michigan. It's made by the Ford company who ran the plant, so naturally it's very pro-Ford and masks somewhat the difficulties the company had there, as well as providing a, shall we say rosey view of the B-24 itself.

But none the less it is an interesting insight into WW2 production lines, of which this was I think the largest in the world, designed by the legendary industrial architect Albert Kahn (if you don't know who that is, there's never been a better time to read more about him) and built in the span of about a year.

If you pay close attention you might even recognise the famous theme tune to the Archers, six years before the show first aired. Also, keep an eye out for the use of specialist production midgets. And no, that is not a typo.

1 comment:

  1. I would say equipment is the least of the problem. I would say the manning is the real problem. If we are talking about a modern day force, nothing sci-fi, nothing WW2-ish, something of today I think from scratch you are looking at about 5 years plus to train and gain experience to build a mechanised infantry brigade in terms of personnel. And to make a worthwhile field force, something the size of the UK's contribution to GW1, it would take some effort. Think about all the trades and skills that would have to be learned and honed, never mind the management and leadership skills. Also consider British forces are very good at remembering the when of campaigns of history but not very good at remembering the how.