The Red Arrows, Brexit and China

Posted on 1st November, 2016 in Performance, Value, Leadership
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The Red Arrows is an iconic brand.

Will it now be utilised to help position UK plc for life after Brexit?  Read on…

The Pot of Cash is Far from Bottomless

Every few years, there is a major review of spending within the Ministry of Defence.  With an average long-term downward trend in defence spending and some major equipment purchases in recent and upcoming years, the three individual Services are invariably asked to save money.  For the RAF, the Red Arrows, who provide no contribution to operational capability, are an easy sacrificial lamb.

‘But no,’ cry the crowds lining The Mall, ‘they are a national treasure’.  ‘But no’ cry the Cabinet, who generally recognise a political hot potato when they see one.  ‘We saved the Red Arrows’ cries the Daily Mail (again).  How long can we indulge ourselves though?  The pot of cash is far from bottomless and Brexit is only likely to stretch the public purse thinner.

Flying Across the World

With the above in mind, it is instructive to consider that the team is currently en route to China on an international tour.  As the RAF’s highest profile public asset, and ambassadors for their equipment made by the British defence industry, the team undertakes such tours intermittently every few years, but this one is slightly new territory.

The logistical challenge in such an enterprise should not be underestimated.  Flying twelve single-engine aircraft (with no autopilot), plus a support crew and enough spares for two months, halfway around the world, takes some organisation, not mention dealing with random swerveballs.

I can still remember well, from my time, flying into unforecast headwinds from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, when we were informed of dust storms in Egypt, resulting in an unplanned diversion of eleven British military aircraft to an unmanned airfield on the coast of Saudi Arabia.  International tours present challenges…

Brexit and China

And they are not cheap.  Plus, this time, there is a difference.  The team has never been to China before.  The eagle-eyed among you may have noted that China is not strictly a military ally or the most obvious target market for defence exports.  The tour is actually part of the government’s ‘Britain is GREAT’ campaign, which aims to showcase the UK’s business credentials in key markets around the world.  The crowds on The Mall would approve; the team is being used to project ‘the best of British’ in support of a much more general commercial and diplomatic agenda.

With the activation of Article 50 just months away, and Britain stepping up its efforts to solidify relationships and make trade agreements beyond European borders, is this new role a sign of things to come for the RAF’s iconic team as they become less a showpiece for the RAF, and more a national asset for ‘UK plc?’  One only has to look at social media coverage of the current tour (already started) to see evidence of in-country engagement outside of the display schedule, far in excess of anything I ever experienced.

Soft Power

It seems unlikely that a flypast over Brussels is going to have much impact on the EU’s negotiating position however, there does seem to be both an intention and an expectation that the display of professional excellence in the Far East will offer clear benefits to the UK’s interests, both politically, and by association, for British brands in those markets.  It also offers an opportunity for meaningful engagement with local communities, to a degree that will never be achieved by a high-level political visit – ‘soft power’ at its best.

The irony here is that soft power has been China’s modus operandi for many years.  Notwithstanding a bit of sabre rattling around her own borders, China has tended to avoid military excursions and gunboat diplomacy and prefers to buy influence and leverage behind the scenes.  Huge subsidised investments in Africa are just one example of eastern strategic thinking.

It seems odd that nine pilots making funny shapes in the sky could be a key part of the Department of International Trade’s strategy.  However, with the UK’s standing in the league of nations currently somewhat unstable, and economic growth forecasts under threat, our ability to deploy soft power, and build relationships, has never been more important.  One positive fallout of this particular example is the potential to secure a long-term funding lifeline for the Red Arrows.  

Thank you for reading.

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My book, The Business of Excellence, draws on both my time as a fighter pilot and subsequent consulting experience to lay out a roadmap for building high-performance organisations.

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