‘Buy British’ or ‘buy the best’? To maximise economic value, our armed forces must be able to do both at once

June 24, 2017

By Roland Sonnenberg, Partner, PwC

Our latest annual study of public perceptions of the UK’s armed forces – Forces for change 2017 – contains several encouraging messages for the military. Our survey of over 2,000 members of the public shows that trust in the services is high and rising, and that most people would like to see Britain’s military strength increase over the coming 20 years. There’s also widespread public appreciation of the forces’ contribution to UK society and their value to the economy.

But the study also reveals some findings which defence need to address.  One of these is limited awareness across the population as a whole of what the forces actually contribute to the economy. However the most challenging results are those related to age. According to our research, younger people trust the armed forces less, have lower awareness of the value the forces create, and – perhaps most surprisingly – are less aware than their older counterparts of the employment and training opportunities offered by the military.

In my view, these findings point to both challenges and opportunities. There’s a clear need to improve public understanding – especially among the young – of what the forces do, the value they create and the career opportunities they offer. In an era when the talk in the media is of zero hours contracts and ‘generation rent’, the armed forces can offer young people the solidity of secure employment that provides relevant, life-long skills.

If these messages can be successfully landed, they’ll support the UK’s ability to realise a major opportunity – one that is becoming all the more important as Brexit draws nearer: the potential to invest in building a world-class defence industry that will boost economic growth through investment, exports and innovation, while also helping to drive the jobs and skills we so urgently need.

Our study suggests that if the government set out to seize this opportunity, it will be pushing against an open door in terms of public support. Some 46% of respondents to our survey say the government should support UK industry through its defence spending, against just 38% who think it should seek the best price irrespective of whether the equipment is being sourced from the UK or overseas.

The public have a point. The long lifecycle of R&D and technology development in defence – often up to 25 or 30 years – means there’s a strong argument for buying British to support future innovation and skills, rather than sourcing readily-available equipment off-the-shelf from countries such as the US. By taking this long-term view and approach to defence spending, the UK MOD could support the UK’s industrial strategy in a post-Brexit world and help build a global Britain.

However, the MOD can’t achieve this on its own. There’s a danger here of defence procurement being seen as a trade-off between ‘buying British’ and ‘buying the best’ – but there must be no compromise on the quality of the equipment supplied to our armed forces. So buying British also has to mean buying the best – or something at least equivalent to the alternatives available from overseas.

This means that, alongside the MOD, the UK defence industry also needs to play its full part in delivering best value to the MOD and the nation. To do this, industry needs to be sufficiently productive and efficient, as well as internationally competitive. If this can be achieved, then wider economic benefits will follow, by sustaining and growing the defence industry’s contribution of skills to the UK.

Skills developed by the military add value to the economy in two key ways. The first is when people with training and experience gained in the armed forces leave for civilian roles, bringing with them a strong skillset and work ethic. The second is the military’s development of deep specialist technical skills in areas like nuclear and aeronautical engineering, which are hugely valuable in the civilian sector. To make the most of these skills on both sides, there’s a clear opportunity for more partnerships and collaboration between the armed forces and industry.

Overall, our study points to a clear opportunity for the government to use defence spending to support jobs, innovation and investment in UK industry. If we take this opportunity, it will represent a major step towards building a UK economy fit for a post-Brexit world. But to make this happen, industry also needs to step up to the plate.

Contact details
Email: Roland Sonnenberg
Tel: +44 (0)207 804 5162