UK homeland security: Companies seek fresh sources of income

At a Science Museum event last month, defence industry executives mingled with senior figures from Whitehall and the intelligence community.

They were there for the launch of the UK's science and technology strategy for countering international terrorism, brainchild of Charles Farr, top security official at the Home Office.

Defence contractors - eager to tap into national security as traditional areas of their business face deep cuts - have long bemoaned the fact that the counter-terror market is difficult to access.

This is because of the large number of customers - ranging from local police forces to MI5 - and a lack of clarity about what products companies should be developing.

But there is a shared belief that the new strategy represents a breakthrough in relations between industry and the intelligence community, although senior Whitehall officials concede it is not a panacea.

"Companies such as Thales, EADS and BAE Systems are demanding clarity on what we want," says one security official. "And what we are hoping to get from them is a bit of leverage on their R&D, which of course is enormous, and to map it on to our requirements just as the military has done."

"We now have the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism as more of the focal point as a potential customer," the official adds.

"But as far as industry is concerned, government is still difficult to understand, which is why we've moved much further ahead on explaining to industry: this is how we operate, these are the kinds of things in which we are interested."

The list of key challenges the strategy highlights includes: understanding the causes of radicalisation; protecting national infrastructure; reducing the vulnerability of crowded places; countering cyber-terror; improving analytical software for MI5, MI6 and GCHQ; and combating improvised explosives.

The UK should also build industrial capacity in a series of technologies, the strategy recommends, including knowledge management, screening, biometrics and physical protection

In a previously classified excerpt from a Ministry of Defence report, terrorist threats are identified in areas as diverse as biotechnology, nanotechnology and robotics.

"We don't for a moment think that BAE will invest £200m on the basis of these documents, but they will hopefully start conversations," says the security official.

There is hope this engagement will bear fruit, with industry largely welcoming the new strategy.

Harvey Lewis, head of security strategy at Detica, the IT and cybersecurity specialist bought recently by BAE, says: "What is particularly striking about the document is how closely it brings together defence and security, something that mirrors what industry is trying to do."

Domestic security services are particularly eager to tap into the science used to protect vehicles against roadside bombs in Afghanistan. Developments in countering chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear explosives - sometimes referred to as dirty bombs - will also have uses in domestic urban centres and foreign battlefields.

Equally important for industry is the ability to sell security products to the private sector, from power companies protecting their plants to banks safeguarding customer data. Mr Lewis estimates the UK government spends about £3.5bn a year on national security, with a similar amount being spent by private companies.

General Dynamics UK, local arm of the US defence manufacturer, says it is prioritising security contracts with the private sector because they tend to run at "hundreds of millions of pounds" rather than the "tens of millions" in smaller government deals.

"The problem has always been the cost of the sale," says Danny Milligan, GD's UK head of security systems. "The budgets are so spread around between government departments, police forces and local authorities that it tends to be a very expensive sale unless you have a very simple product."

Instead, in common with many peers, General Dynamics has sought contracts with multinational companies, particularly for the protection of oil and gas infrastructure, including one to protect Royal Dutch Shell's huge gas-to-liquids plant in Qatar.

Companies are hoping similar big projects might happen in the UK, particularly if Dubai Ports revisits plans to build a huge deep-sea port in Essex.

While the UK security budget has risen sharply since 2001, it could come under pressure as the Treasury seeks spending cuts. As a result, private sector sales and foreign exports will be crucial in encouraging contractors to develop anti-terror products.

This helps explain why companies are eager to provide products and services for the 2012 Olympics in London.

As one Whitehall official puts it: "The Olympics is a tremendous opportunity to showcase what the private sector can do in the security space. Not only do you have a UK security kitemark on the product but you've got an Olympic kitemark to boot."

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