Home / UK / Sky Views: Let’s hope the UK has a strategy to protect its tech from espionage and rivalry – Sky News

Sky Views: Let’s hope the UK has a strategy to protect its tech from espionage and rivalry – Sky News

By Deborah Haynes, foreign affairs editor

In an era of “great power competition” even commercial deals linked to a rival country can pose a national security risk.

That’s not to say in Britain we should read state-sponsored conspiracy behind, for example, every Chinese business transaction with a British company.

But the government must have a strategy to protect the UK’s most critical infrastructure, its most coveted technology and its most secret military capabilities from foreign interference.

Maybe it does.

Chinese-owned Exception manufacture circuit boards for military jets
Image:
Chinese-owned Exception manufacture circuit boards for UK-US military jets

I hope it does because if it does not then there is a real risk that foreign companies with malign intent have already inserted themselves into our systems.

This could include the complex web of supply chains that support Britain’s biggest defence procurements such as our warships, satellites and missiles.

The news this week that a Chinese-owned firm in the UK is making circuit boards for the top secret F-35 warplane flown by Britain and the United States caused concern and bemusement among defence experts and former defence ministers.

The circuit boards are designed for the F35 jets
Image:
The circuit boards are designed for the F-35 jets

There is no suggestion Exception PCB in Gloucestershire – an established printed circuit board manufacturer – or its Chinese parent, Shenzhen Fastprint, have done anything wrong.

However, if – as defence experts believe – China is a competitor with the ability to use commercial Chinese companies to further its own interests overseas, then the Ministry of Defence would surely have carried out a thorough check of Shenzhen Fastprint before it was able to take over a British company with an F-35 contract.

F-35 jets are of a national strategic importance
Image:
F-35 jets are of a national strategic importance

The MoD was happy enough to promote the F-35 credentials of Exception in a March publication as an example of a successful UK-based small and medium sized enterprise.

But it failed to mention it has been under Chinese ownership since 2013.

This was wrong.

I don’t know whether the omission was an oversight or whether knowledge of the acquisition simply had not been relayed up the chain of command to ministers.

If the latter was the case then something really has gone wrong.

Sky Views

Given the national strategic importance of the F-35 programme, ministers should have been made expressly aware of the Chinese takeover of a company involved in the supply chain.

They should then have told parliament about the steps that have been taken to ensure – as the MoD says today – that the Chinese ownership of Exception poses no risk.

I wonder whether there are other sub-contractors or sub-sub-contractors to the big defence primes like BAE Systems, Thales, General Electric or Airbus that are similarly, quietly under Chinese ownership but it is just not talked about or challenged.

Perhaps it does not need to be challenged.

Perhaps there is no risk.



F35 Jet




Chinese-owned firm makes parts for UK-US fighters

But many defence experts would disagree.

President Donald Trump may also not take too kindly to such an approach.

He has been vocal in his distrust of another Chinese company, Huawei, banning the company from any role in the US in next generation mobile networks over spying fears.

Huawei says it poses no such risk.

Jim Mattis, the former US defence secretary, used the term “great power competition” to refer to the contest for dominance between the United States, China and Russia.

This is not about war in a conventional sense, though it requires conventional military capability to be properly resourced in case the worst happens.

It is about big countries and their respective allies using alternative levers of power and influence to gain advantage, such as by infiltrating an opponent’s industrial or defence base, manipulating its media or corrupting its politicians.

It means existential threats can come in forms that are not always obvious until it is too late.

Sky Views is a series of comment pieces by Sky News editors and correspondents, published every morning.

Previously on Sky Views: Adam Boulton – Local politicians are no longer lightweights – the proof is Boris Johnson

Sky Views: Let’s hope the UK has a strategy to protect its tech from espionage and rivalry – Sky News

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