In a cynical and completely predictable act the US authorities have slapped a 219% tariff on the Bombardier C Series jet. The charge is that Bombardier had received development and infrastructure funding from the Canadian and British governments. Delta ordered 125 of those jets, much to the chagrin of Boeing, and so Boeing pulled strings and a ruling was made.
The US has a long history in doing anything to protect its own aerospace industries, including large scale bribery (the F104 Starfighter programme) direct political threats – Britain’s TSR2 programme scrapped for the (never delivered) F111 bomber – the sudden cancellation of the British Blue Streak missile for Skybolt and the sabotage of Concorde – the rival for the Boeing SST- through noise legislation.
Let’s be clear, this is yet another example of dirty tricks against British industry. The tariffs will kill off Bombardier in Northern Ireland. 4,500 direct, highly skilled jobs are in immediate peril, with another 10,000 at risk in associated industries.
We cannot lie down and just accept this or just state, as Theresa May has just done, that we are ‘disappointed’. That is no way to handle this crisis.
Justin Trudeau of Canada has already signalled that orders for the F18 Super Hornet will be cancelled in retaliation, but Theresa May has done absolutely nothing, even though the decision by the Americans was deemed likely a month ago.
The DUP, May’s guardians, will not take this lying down, and rightly so. Bombardier is vital for Northern Ireland and its position as a hi-tech industrial economy. But May has done nothing. She even appears to be trying to appease the Americans.
So, what should she do?
First, she must warn the US that Britain is prepared to cancel the F35B fighter orders and withdraw technical assistance for the entire F35 project. It should also pull the RAF pilots and RN aviators out of the testing programme.
In addition, all export licenses for Martin-Baker ejection seats should be put on hold for the F35.
She should also lobby our EU partners to review all F35 orders. This hugely expensive aircraft of dubious value will cost more than £150 million each. There are European aircraft that are much cheaper, and better.
There will be consequences. This will impact the Royal Navy’s carrier programme, as currently it can only fly the F35B. However, being realistic, substantial deliveries of the F35B will not be made until 2025, so time is on our side.
The pressure will then be on Boeing, as the grossly inflated F35 programme creates employment in all 50 US states and the F35B model (the USMC Harrier replacement) is only financially viable with the UK orders. No one else wants this lemon of an aircraft. As critics have already claimed, ‘It can’t turn, it can’t climb, and it can’t run away’.
The disastrous decision to make the Queen Elizabeth and The Prince of Wales STOVL only – F35B only – have convinced the Americans they have us over a barrel. So, our carriers will either need ‘cats and traps’ conversions – they should have had them anyway – or they will need to be mothballed or scrapped. Not a pleasant prospect but a realistic one.
If May has the guts, she can use this crisis to negotiate with France to develop an alternative solution, to purchase Rafale M (carrier capable) fighters and to assist in rebuilding the carriers with the essential cats and traps. The deal of course will be dependent on France supporting a UK / EU free trade agreement, but the benefits for UK and French industries will be huge, especially if other F35 purchasing nations scrap their orders too.
Tough action is the only thing that will scare Boeing. The F35 project, already by far the biggest military project in history, really is too big to fail. Trump, a man who understands a hard deal, will have to step in and intervene.
Tough talk? Yes, but vital for NI, Bombardier, 16,500 highly skilled workers and for the DUP!
Let’s not forget: without the DUP, May is a dead duck. She needs to act fast. Arlene Foster has already stated that May’s response is not good enough. The GMB union is, rightly, up in arms.
This is not a battle Britain can afford to lose. It is a golden opportunity to create a means to negotiate a better deal with Europe, particularly with France, and a means to lever the USA into a full trade deal with the UK. We can win either way.
But only if May acts!
The alternative is, probably, her fall and a very early election. An election she will lose.
That should give her something to think about during conference week….