Commercial aerospace’s ‘macro-innovation race’ is on. What will defence do?

by | Feb 25, 2021

Aerospace’s macro-innovation drought is over – the starting gun has been fired on what will likely be the defining issue of the next era of flight: the race to ‘net-zero’ emissions.

As a firm believer in the power of aerospace to act as a motivational force behind cross-sector, planetary-wide solutions to our greatest challenges – viz. our Call to Action for aerospace and defence to mobilise versus global challenges – I have at times bemoaned the vicious spiral into which A&D has fallen over the past 40-odd years: namely, its risk-averse inability to innovate on the ‘big things’ ‘(macro-innovation’) impacting its ability to hire the engineers it needs to sustain its future as a force to be reckoned with. And/or vice versa – that a lack of young engineering talent is impacting its capacity to innovate at scale. Either way, even though recruitment remains challenging, that now looks to be a thing of the past, allowing me to ‘call time’ on what I’ve come to refer to over the past 15 years as the ‘Albaugh declaration’.

In January 2005, Jim Albaugh, then-head of Boeing’s defence business, stood up at a Royal Aeronautical Society lecture in London and warned his peers that aerospace was failing to innovate in the way it used to and this would prompt a brain-drain that would present the sector with a choice: either innovate itself out of the looming crisis or become what he termed an ‘incrementalist’ industry – an upgrader of past breakthroughs, epitomised by the Apollo programme, the Space Shuttle, Concorde and stealth. Lo and behold, much of that prediction came home to roost, as young engineers, lured by ‘Big Tech’, shunned A&D for other sectors, with some of aerospace’s biggest innovations of the period coming (initially, at least) from outside the sector – to wit, SpaceX, commercial drones and urban air mobility: the about-to-be-ubiquitous metropolitan air taxi.

Even as little as a year or so ago, the aviation sector wasn’t nearly as focused on the issue of sustainability as it should have been – but, catalysed by the pandemic, it now is; and in laser-like fashion. Airbus was first out of the gate with its Zero:e programme, a plan to develop a family of zero-emission commercial aircraft by 2035 fuelled on hydrogen. Boeing followed more recently with plans for a more modest, lower-risk effort to focus on a commercial product line that will run on so-called sustainable aviation fuels, SAFs, by 2030 (whose feedstock includes plants, agricultural and household waste). Airbus will adopt SAFs, too, in its run-up to aviation’s hydrogen transition.

Not only are these two industrial giants now pitted against each other – each with a significantly different approach – but whole regions are entering the race, especially when it comes to hydrogen-based ecosystems.

In mid-February, Airbus, Air France-KLM and airports operator Groupe ADP, backed by the governmental machinery of the French capital, announced their intention to build an entire hydrogen ecosystem focused on Paris’s airports – with hydrogen not just providing fuel for aircraft, but for ground transportation and infrastructure. At around the same time, I was privileged to chair a panel hosted by the West of England Aerospace Forum that is looking to do exactly the same thing in the UK’s West Country. In no time, regional contests to attract the best and brightest innovators in the looming hydrogen boom will become national contests … and so aerospace’s next big macro-innovation race is on.

Where does this leave A&D and our initiative to draw the sector into a cross-sector effort to, quotes, ‘save the planet’? Whilst the commercial side of the business now has what business motivational guru Simon Sinek would call its ‘just cause’, where is defence’s? To paraphrase Sinek: a just cause is our ‘why’ (the need for organisations to articulate why they do things versus what they do and how they do it) projected into the future. It describes a future state in which our ‘why’ has been realised. It is a forward-looking statement that is so inspiring and compelling that people are willing to sacrifice to see that vision advanced.

Sixth-generation fighters are important, but defence’s macro-innovation race is focused predominantly on a great-power contest between the US, China and Russia that hinges on AI – artificial intelligence. AI’s endgame is uncertain, but – in a not-impossible-to-imagine future – may end up giving us the ‘Terminator option’: deep, machine-learning whose only recourse to beating the other side’s AI is to outsmart it by cutting us – us humans, that is – out of the loop.

So here’s a just cause for defence to ponder. Whilst we all have to guard against what the ‘other side’ is doing, wouldn’t it be extraordinary for defence to ‘co-invest’ in technologies that de-risk the causes of conflict in the first place? And here I’m not just talking about the mitigating impact of deterrence.

‘Threat’, as is well known, is a combination of capability, opportunity and intent. In the 21st century, an ever-increasing trigger for conflict is climate change and competition for scarce resources. Defence has a significant opportunity right now to offload a huge proportion of its government-funded science and technolgy and research and development into technologies that mitigate the causes of climate change – a vast market. Ploughed into a cross-sector effort that would pitch all sectors – and, in time, all nations – into the struggle, such an effort would provide in the process solutions to each of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals – amongst which is an ambition for peace – unleashing an economic boom, fuelled by tech presently locked up in the ‘defence ecosystem’, that post-pandemic we all so desperately need.