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Defence firms seek broader agenda

Ellsworth Mountains in Antarctica

A number of defence and aerospace companies have begun to explore how they could apply their skills to help with global challenges like energy shortages, the environment and natural disasters. But is this just a potentially lucrative new market to compensate for stagnating defence budgets?

This week some of those involved in the initiative gathered at a conference in London. One of the instigators, Nick Cook, a former aerospace journalist who now runs a company called Dynamixx, explained how he latched on to the idea.

"It was patently obvious to me that the aerospace and defence sectors had technologies which operated in all segments of the eco-sphere from sub-sea to space," he said. "So why should they not know about the environment and how to go about tackling some of the particularly big problems encapsulated by climate change?"

Image caption Storm Sandy battered the US, but could defence firms have helped?

It is not new for defence companies to be looking at, for example, alternative power supplies, or for aerospace companies to be developing more fuel-efficient engines. But the intent of this initiative is clearly to take things a lot further.

Recently, five of the major defence and aerospace companies - US firms Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman, and Saab and Finmeccanica from Europe - signed up to a statement promising to look at co-operation to tackle what they called "global challenges", that could include renewable energy, climate change, and disaster relief. Of course, just what that will mean in the end is another matter.

Among the technologies that might be of use are satellite surveillance, long-range drones to plot the impact of ice melt, and robust command and control systems to help communities cope with natural disasters. The Vice-President for Research and Innovation for Raytheon, John Zolper, points to his company's involvement in air traffic control systems.

"We're in the process of taking those systems and making them transportable and deployable in a rapid response situation," he said. "In a day you could set up a completely new traffic control system wherever needed."

Island benefits?

There is, of course, a potentially significant economic incentive. Defence spending globally is still growing. But Western defence budgets are stagnating or declining, and the global market is getting more crowded. On the other hand, it has been estimated that the market for global infrastructure development could amount to $40 trillion (£25trn) over the next 25 years.

Image caption Northrop Grumman makes drones, but believes its expertise could be put to other uses

To the sceptics, this is just companies seeking new sources of revenue as their traditional markets falter. There are questions over whether it risks militarising the environment and development agendas. And there are plenty of other innovative industrial sectors which might be more appropriate.

"There is money in it, clearly," acknowledges Mr Cook. "But the most fundamental reason we're asking them to engage is because we think they have solutions to offer, particularly in the way they bring big systems together, that no other sector can do."

Mr Cook suggests the defence and aerospace companies could offer technology that could have helped even a major city like New York to have coped better with the recent super-storm Sandy. This could include mapping and sensing techniques to spot areas most vulnerable to flooding, and portable power systems to overcome blackouts.

For smaller, more vulnerable states, disasters like Sandy mean not just chaos, but governments and societies collapsing for a period, and high-tech industrial help could be valuable. "There must be a way to have that experience incorporated," says O'Neil Hamilton, a Jamaican diplomat currently at the Stimson Center in Washington.

These companies could have an effect, he says, particularly on "how particularly small island developing states like those in the Caribbean really impact their security arrangements and really have the security/development nexus benefit from their experience."

It is not just about the big industrial players. Small defence companies are also especially vulnerable to the cyclical nature of defence orders. Supacat is a small British engineering company involved with military vehicles.

Its managing director, Nicholas Ames, says his concerns about the nature of the defence business drove him to look at new areas. "I've always been thinking about other sectors we should be looking at with our skills," he says.

Mr Ames alighted on the offshore renewable energy sector, because of work Supacat had done with Britain's Royal National Lifeboat Institution. "For my part I see a whole plethora of marine engineering challenges that are frankly being thrown out by these new renewable energy devices."

This may not be a revolution. Many companies already straddle different markets. Equally, there is clearly still resistance and some scepticism on both sides of the equation. But this may well be the shape of things to come.

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