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Young people must understand their freedom is at risk, says Babcock chief

Workers at Babcock's Rosyth dockyard in Scotland are busy building the Royal Navy's Type 31 frigates
Workers at Babcock's Rosyth dockyard in Scotland are busy building the Royal Navy's Type 31 frigates - Barry Wheeler/Royal Navy

Young people must realise Britain needs to spend more on defence to protect their freedoms, the boss of Babcock has said.

David Lockwood, chief executive of the British defence company, said Britain must make the case for higher defence spending to younger generations born since the Cold War as the world enters a more dangerous period.

Mr Lockwood said the West could no longer take democracy and liberty for granted as authoritarian and totalitarian states such as China and Russia become more aggressive.

Grant Shapps, the defence secretary, has urged the Government and defence companies to become more vocal about the need for a strong military posture to protect democracies as the world enters a “pre-war” era.

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Mr Lockwood backed the call, saying: “Grant [Shapps] is right – we do need to get out there and make the case that people’s right to protest is something we’re defending.”

The defence industry is crucial for allowing people like Greta Thunberg 'to protest safely', Mr Lockwood says
The defence industry is crucial for allowing people like Greta Thunberg 'to protest safely', Mr Lockwood says - RAMON VAN FLYMEN/ANP/AFP via Getty Images

He pointed to a wave of high-profile protests over climate change, arguing that the defence industry helped to guarantee the freedoms of Western demonstrators such as Greta Thunberg.

In an interview with The Telegraph, Mr Lockwood said: “If you take someone like Greta, don’t just think about where she’s allowed to protest – think about the countries where she’s not allowed to protest.

“Do we really want to become like them? We want people like Greta to have the right to protest and to be able to do so safely.

“I have enjoyed speaking to protesters because I think they have a right to protest and I have a right to explain to them why I believe the only reason they can protest is because we’re protecting their rights. That’s constructive and positive.

“But we need to get out there and argue that much more, and with much more confidence.”

The comments come against a backdrop of apathy among young people towards defence spending.

Just 6pc of 18 to 24-year-olds believe the Government should spend more on defence, according to YouGov polling, compared to 41pc of over-65s. Only 14pc of 25 to 49-year-olds back higher spending.

Mr Lockwood, 62, said younger generations needed to realise that their freedoms were under threat and increased spending was necessary to safeguard them.

A political debate is currently raging about the UK’s defence spending, with Rishi Sunak facing public calls from former cabinet ministers and ex-senior civil servants to raise the level to at least 3pc of GDP from around 2.2pc currently.

In a time of stretched public finances, doing so would put pressure on Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor, to make potentially controversial cuts to other public services.

Mr Lockwood said: “I certainly think that if the threat is growing, [if] you thought you were spending enough against a smaller threat, then either you’re going to have to spend more wisely or you’re going to need to spend more – probably a bit of both.”

Speaking at a Ministry of Defence site in Corsham, Wiltshire, where Babcock has just taken over management of the Skynet military satellite system, he also said more positive arguments for defence were crucial in addressing the industry’s huge demand for skilled workers.

Babcock recently joined with other businesses to launch “Destination Nuclear”, a scheme that aims to become a one-stop shop for careers information and job advertisements across both civil and military nuclear programmes.

Through its various businesses, Babcock is involved in both the upkeep of the Royal Navy’s nuclear-powered submarines as well as the operation and construction of nuclear power plants.

Destination Nuclear’s website aims to tempt talented young workers to join from other industries or retrain, stressing nuclear power’s carbon-free energy credentials and the role Britain’s nuclear deterrent plays in guaranteeing “global peace and security”.

Mr Lockwood said: “That really matters, because you want to attract people.”

Mr Lockwood believes the West can no longer take democracy and liberty for granted
Babcock boss David Lockwood believes the West cannot take democracy and liberty for granted - Rachel Adams

The FTSE 250 chief recently took over as president of ADS, the main trade body for the UK’s aerospace, defence, security and space sectors, and is now in his fourth year as Babcock’s chief executive.

He was previously boss of British aerospace pioneer Cobham, which was sold to private equity, from 2016 to 2020.

So far, the chartered accountant has spent most of his tenure at Babcock in turnaround mode having taken over after a disastrous period where the company was forced to issue multiple profit warnings and came under sustained attack from short-sellers.

Babcock’s share price has more than doubled since Mr Lockwood took charge, with the company today worth £2.5bn.

Mr Lockwood has spent time simplifying the business, which he says was previously too federated and suffered from duplication. He has slashed more than 1,000 jobs and vowed to fix its “cultural issues”.

The defence engineering giant is one of the Ministry of Defence’s most important contractors, with Mr Lockwood describing the relationship between the two as something of a “marriage”.

Its important duties include maintaining warships and submarines at the Royal Navy dockyard in Devonport, Plymouth, which is currently being overhauled and modernised to support future generations of boats and even drones.

Babcock’s Rosyth shipyard is also where Britain’s two new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers were partly built and assembled, in partnership with other defence companies.

Workers there are currently engaged in building the Navy’s new Type 31 frigates.

The Royal Navy's new frigate HMS Venturer
The Royal Navy's new frigate HMS Venturer under construction - Barry Wheeler/Royal Navy

Elsewhere, the company is responsible for storing and maintaining around 30,000 vehicles on behalf of the Army, including Jackal armoured vehicles and main battle tanks.

More recently, Babcock this month successfully took over the management of the Skynet satellite network from former contractor Airbus following a bidding process that concluded last year.

Since then, the Corsham facility has been refurbished and all Airbus livery replaced with Babcock’s own branding. Mr Lockwood visited in person on Monday to hoist his company’s flag over the buildings.

The £400m deal is seen as a new and important foray into space for Babcock’s defence businesses, which could lead to similar work for other UK-allied countries.

Through Skynet, the company is now managing the global communications network underpinning all of the Armed Forces as well as the intelligence services (although any mention of the latter is strictly avoided).

Satellite communications are vital not only for military operations but also for the more prosaic – but nonetheless important – purposes of ensuring forces personnel can access entertainment services such as Netflix while on tours of duty.

As a result, the facility at Corsham must be kept highly secure with operations centres contained within bunker-like buildings that use airlock seals and other protections.

Mr Lockwood is evangelical about the structure of the Skynet deal, which he says is based on a “collaborative” rather than “transactional” model. It will mean the company works hand-in-hand with the MoD to continuously upgrade services throughout the six-year contract’s lifetime, rather than simply delivering a static product to specification.

This is ever-more important during a time of rapid change, as developments in Ukraine and elsewhere reshape the battlefield.

The conflict in Ukraine has renewed the focus on tanks
'Tanks are back' as drones eclipse helicopters, Babcock's chief believes - ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images

He added: “If you go back 20 years, Western governments were running down their fleets of heavy armour because it was vulnerable to attack helicopters.

“Now, helicopters are seen as incredibly vulnerable to drones… but drones can’t take out a tank because they can’t carry a big enough payload, so tanks are back.

“You just have this constant churn, where obsolescence is no longer necessarily permanent.”

He hopes the Government – whether it is a Conservative one or Labour after the next election – continues down this more collaborative path in other areas of defence.

The Ministry of Defence has vowed to work more closely with industry in various policy papers, with the accelerated deployment of Dragonfire lasers this week championed as a prime example of the benefits this can bring.

Such collaboration is of ever increasing importance as the international threat level rises.

Mr Lockwood said: “I do also think this is the first time in my lifetime when we’re not taking Western freedoms for granted.

“Because even in the Cold War, frankly, we were either going to be free or blown to smithereens – we weren’t under threat in the way we are now.”