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An overview of the defence industry

Defence: industry sector overview

The defence industry covers everything from land, sea and air capabilities to electronics and cyber security. Just one product can encompass a huge range of elements, says Pamela Wilson, an engineering manager at BAE Systems.

The defence industry provides the technology that protects nations all over the world. Our job is to defend their interests, keep ahead of future threats and offer value for money so our clients can get the most for their budget. Defence covers everything from land, sea and air capabilities to electronics and cyber security. Just one product can encompass a huge range of elements. The aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, for example, is a naval ship but is also an airport for aircrafts and an operational defence base, with over 1600 crew members and a command suite of sensors that interact with other ships and people onshore and in the air.

Companies operating in the industry range from large multinational companies to small companies that provide specialist support for a specific technology they've developed. There are also the suppliers that develop and supply components to the larger companies. As well as developing new products, a huge part of our job is the maintenance and service of existing aircraft, land vehicles and naval vessels. With cyber security, you may provide a continuous service rather than, say, a one-off piece of software.

Trends and developments in the defence industry

There is always pressure on governments to make budget cuts, although recently the UK, mainland Europe and America have increased their defence budgets. Heightening political tensions understandably trigger a question of whether protection against a new or perceived threat is required. Cyber attacks on banks and other infrastructures also have larger implications for the defence industry.

The defence sector is constantly changing; we need engineers from different backgrounds and disciplines to look ahead to new technologies. Mechanical and structural engineers, for example, should look at new materials and how they could be integrated into our products to offer something more to clients.

What it's like working in the defence industry

Due to the complexity of the products, it can take a number of years to develop and agree a contract. After this, a piece of avionic equipment might take 18 months to develop, but a large aircraft or naval ship will take much longer. Meanwhile, cyber security is very fast paced and there is a high turnaround on projects.

Engineers will usually work in teams, whether that's a disciplinary team or an integrated product team (where the different disciplines that make up the project work together). You'll also work with colleagues from procurement, sales and business development, as well as the client. However, there are also opportunities to work more independently.

A willingness to be mobile is helpful as there are opportunities to travel within the UK and internationally, whether that's daily travel between sites, a one- or two-day trip or relocation for a few months for a particular project. My work has taken me to various locations in the UK, Germany, Italy and America. For the past ten years I have stayed in one place and I commute to different sites as required.

Getting an engineering graduate job in the defence industry

You can apply for an internship or a graduate programme. As a graduate, you're likely to rotate between different areas or projects. This will help you understand what is best for you and build up competencies to make sure you're on the right track to becoming a chartered engineer. As you progress, it's possible to specialise in one area and become a technologist or you can gain experience across multiple disciplines.

The highlights of a career in defence

  • Being part of the development of cutting edge and innovative technologies.
  • Solving complex problems.
  • Being able to promote STEM careers to young people.

The defence industry seeks graduates from the following disciplines:

  • aerospace/aeronautical
  • automotive
  • chemical
  • civil/structural
  • control
  • electrical
  • electronics
  • environmental
  • instruments
  • manufacturing
  • materials
  • mathematics
  • mechanical
  • physics
  • power systems
  • software
  • telecoms

Always check individual employers' requirements.

Thanks to Pamela Wilson for her help with this article. Pamela is an engineering manager at BAE Systems. She has a bachelor of technology in electrical and electronic engineering from Ulster University and has been working in the industry for 30 years.

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