Letter: Critical battle for European aerospace

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Sir: Michael Harrison's article (18 April) concerning British Aerospace Airbus's repayments of launch aid on the A320 raised the vexed question of subsidy and political support in civil aircraft manufacture and the dispute between the US and EU on this issue.

Europe's response to US dominance in the civil aeronautics field brought forth the Airbus consortium in the late Sixties. The consortium was the beneficiary of state aid, precisely because this was the only way that Europe could hope to compete with the giant American corporations which were the recipients of largesse from the Department of Defense and Nasa. US supremacy in civil aeronautics arose because the civil industry was embedded in a massive research and development and manufacturing infrastructure created by Cold War military policy, which placed airpower at the centre of defence strategy.

The successful manufacturers were helped through lean times on the civil side by guaranteed military orders done on a cost-plus basis. At the same time, US provision of global security linked sales of both military and civil aircraft to continued American leadership of organisations such as Nato. After all, who in their right mind would have freely chosen to buy an aircraft such as the Lockheed Starfighter?

Bearing in mind these points we in Europe need to see US claims about the role of the market and free trade in civil aeronautics as a smoke screen. Further, dual-use technologies in aerospace, originally developed on the military side, may have a number of civil applications. For example, where did the Integrated Modular Avionics on the 777 come from?

Europe needs to see aerospace more clearly as a strategic industry with important externalities to be considered in addition to simple models of profitability. Aerospace is a prime medium for systems integration across diverse leading-edge technologies. The industry is also a major source of export earnings for Europe. Aerospace jobs are highly skilled and add enormous value through the production stage.

Finally, aerospace is critical to Europe's security. It should not be assumed that the US will always back up Europe's airlift capacity, or that US airpower will always be available when European interests are threatened.

Today in the US the aerospace defence and civil sectors move ever closer together, with benefit to both sides. Airbus's US rival Boeing has an enormous defence portfolio and is at the centre of a strategy to use aerospace high technology as a springboard for a new assertiveness in US trade policy. Europe needs to be aware that while the US talks free trade it is practising mercantilism.


Aerospace Research Group

University of the West of England