Global arms and aerospace colossus BAE Systems this week released a high-profile audit into its internal ethics and served it up with a big slice of humble pie as it promised to be a better corporate citizen in future.
But even as BAE sought to draw a veil over previous alleged indiscretions, it emerged that US officials have speculated that BAE, collaborating with US firms to build the supersonic, stealthed Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), could have allowed secret American military technology to move overseas, raising the possibility that the UK could benefit from expensive American research and development - even perhaps sell it around the world.
The American revelations come as part of a classified report by the US Defense Department inspector-general, subsequently obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request by the Project On Government Oversight. In the report, titled Security Controls Over Joint Strike Fighter Classified Technology, US investigators examine the protections around various cutting-edge technologies which are used in the new fighter.
These are quite significant pieces of kit. One version of the JSF will become the world's first ever supersonic jumpjet; all variants will include so-called "third-generation" stealth technology, intended to make them hard to see on radar or infrared while avoiding the crippling maintenance and handling issues that occurred in the F-117 stealth fighter and B-2 stealth bomber. Stealth 3.0 is seen as one of the USA's key military tech secrets, and for Lockheed - lead contractor on JSF - it is a crucial piece of intellectual property.
The particular concern over BAE's involvement in JSF is that the company also makes aircraft in the UK, typically in partnership with other European nations. America is worried that key tech such as Stealth could leak from BAE's US subsidiaries across the Atlantic to its factories in Britain, though there is supposed to be an internal company "firewall" in place which prevents this. These British factories, with full UK government consent, have famously been willing to sell to customers such as Saudi Arabia and Indonesia at times when the US government has not. And one should bear in mind that BAE doesn't just sell planes to such customers. Not infrequently, it also sells all the knowhow that goes into the aircraft.
According to the American investigators:
Foreign companies [often] prefer to acquire controlled technology without developing it themselves. [A previous US Defense report] identifies information technology, sensors, and aeronautics as technologies that generate the most foreign interest for technology theft, all of which are significant components of a modern aircraft program such as the JSF. The Government needs to be particularly vigilant of attempts by foreign-owned or -controlled companies that could benefit by acquiring critical JSF technologies. The foreign-owned parent of BAE Systems has numerous interests in aircraft development.
The US government - having spent decades and scores of billions developing Stealth and all the rest - isn't thrilled by the possibility of foreigners, including Blighty, suddenly learning how to do it for free. And it might reasonably be especially disquieted by the prospect of BAE's various far-flung customers being taught all these tricks; not to mention the many other global customers of BAE industrial partners such as Germany and Italy, who work with the UK on the Eurofighter project among others. American officials have already expressed some reservations about US military tech moving to Saudi via the Eurofighter, which is being sold there in a deal that will include "transference of technology... in the field of defense industries in Saudi Arabia, as well as training of Saudi citizens".