How I got into Defence: Three stories

Tuesday 21 February 2023

How I got into Defence: Three stories

Our Principal Strategic Analyst, Matt Warren, shares how his career in Defence started and has developed over the years.


The roar was like the sky splitting in two. It rolled and reverberated, drowning out the sounds of us playing in the garden. And there it was, almost close enough to touch or, if not touch, certainly to throw a ball up and hit: an F-111 on approach to landing at RAF Lakenheath. Its swing-wings splayed out, a lumbering metallic bird of prey. A second appeared shortly behind, then a third. On another day it might have been the sombre grey of aerial tankers or the unimaginable bulk of a C-5 Galaxy of the US Air Force instead, heading for RAF Mildenhall. All were loud, all were brilliant. Down in the garden, my brother and I played with toy cars, micromachines and – inevitably – planes as well, and I wondered where these planes that flew over might have come from, what they’d been doing, who was inside? When I was eight, Iraq invaded Kuwait. As preparations for what would become Operation Desert Storm began, the skies were busy every day and all night. My interest in everything about the conflict grew. I convinced Mum to buy me ‘In Combat’ magazine, a weekly overview of defence issues, equipment – and from January 1991 – Desert Storm itself. This window into distant places, complex issues, and powerful people provided a lens through which to learn about and understand the world. Thirty years passed and early in 2022 I finished writing my doctoral thesis in International Relations. Its focus? The development and direction of modern strategic air power, starting with the seminal events of Desert Storm and the role that all those roaring planes that flew over our garden played in winning a distant war.


How much profit do you think we make on a contract?

That was the question. After a pause, I suggested 20 percent. After a little laugh came the response: “that would be nice”. Perhaps my slight naivety was taken to be ambition, but either way I passed the interview and the wider assessment centre. A week later I got a call to say that I’d been accepted onto the BAE Systems Commercial Graduate Framework. In the final months of living in London, studying for a Master’s degree in International Security, my attention had turned to what would come next. I had some discussions on the edges of financial services, but in one interview when asked where I’d like to specialise and I replied ‘defence’ we all knew that maybe the financial sector wasn’t the way to go. One of many careers talks stood out – a chap from BAE Systems talked about working on the future aircraft carrier programme, Typhoon, and working overseas. That sounded more like it: learning about business and defence from the inside, seeing important projects come to life, travelling. That September I started in contracts at one of the company’s mega-sites in the northwest. A year later I landed in Riyadh to spend six months contracting services for Saudi operations. And 18 months after that I was producing market and competitor analysis for the Military Aircraft business. I had arrived in ‘defence’.


From the outside some professions are clearly glamorous. The defence sector is not really one of them, but sometimes you get to go to interesting places and do interesting things. Ten years in and I had arrived that morning in India’s capital, New Delhi. After a day of meetings, I was walking towards India Gate in the heart of the city, past families and couples, bright stalls selling kites and toys, and the blur of motorcycles and cars from the road nearby. I had another 20 minutes before I needed to be back at the hotel to change and head out for an evening reception. In the previous 40 minutes I’d gone for a walk along the street, been talked into hiring a tuk-tuk, been driven to a spice shop, a scarf shop, three banks to find an ATM that would accept my card and give me enough rupees to pay New Delhi’s most patient tuk-tuk driver, and made it to Rajpath, the road that bisects the park running from parliament to India Gate. Later I’d be meeting British industry representatives for dinner, tomorrow briefing people at the High Commission, and the next day visiting the Indian Ministry of Defence. But in that moment, I could relax and take in a small fragment of that huge city and appreciate where my journey in the defence sector had taken me. As I reached India Gate, I spied the tuk-tuk and my guide / driver. Tour over, presents – and some cash – secured. Time to head back to work.