Last week I visited Rome to meet the top management of Leonardo including the CEO, Senor Alessandro Profumo. Since the sale of GKN’s controlling share of Westland in 2004 there has occasionally been a degree of concern about where we feature in the company’s priorities, somewhat complicated by the fact that the controlling shareholder is the Italian Government. It was a great opportunity to discuss strategy, and reassuring to hear that the company is looking to build on its core helicopter engineering and manufacturing bases in Yeovil and Italy, with recent management changes designed to bring more focus within the product lines that can bring that about.
Defence manufacturing is an area that involves many agencies and regulations. It is often international at both strategic and “micro” supply-chain levels. What I would say with regards to our relationship with Italy, is that it is a positive one built on deep friendship and similar security goals, and these basic fundamentals will not change as our relationship with the political structure of the EU takes a new form, as evident from the warmth and positivity of our meeting. Our governments and industries are certainly open to further collaboration in defence and defence industries. I will be encouraging both sides to make the most of these opportunities together as we go forward, mindful of the detail of our national and industrial inter-relationships we need to get right for that purpose.
One example is in the field of unmanned helicopters, or rotary unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to use the correct terminology. As with all unmanned military technology, these are designed so that we can put fewer troops in harm’s way. There is also a weight saving so they can carry more cargo and issues like heat are less of a concern. The Ministry of Defence has already been partnering with Leonardo in this country to develop the technology.
The less visible side to this technology is the battle space integration systems – in other words designing the software and systems that mean multiple units and nations can operate alongside each other safely and effectively. A project called OCEAN2020 is underway which will see unmanned vehicles including fixed and rotary wing, surface and underwater all integrated with Naval command units in multi-nation trials within the EU, and Leonardo has been awarded the leading role for the systems integration. Part-funded by new EU funds designed to increase their defence spending, this is a project in which the company’s unmanned vehicle expertise and experience here in Yeovil can be drawn on and involved, backed by our Ministry of Defence.
I will certainly continue doing what I can to ensure good relationships between our governments and helicopter industry here and abroad, and I know that the new Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, with whom I had a good meeting a fortnight ago, is focused on these matters.
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