28 Feb 05. ANDREW CHUTER of Derfense News reported that Britain’s military helicopter industry may be reshaped here in mid-March, when a meeting of key government departments is set to decide between selecting a new rotorcraft by competition or handing the job straight to local producer AgustaWestland. The British have been agonizing over helicopter policy for years, lately through a review dubbed the Future Rotorcraft Coherency Study. That work is now coming to an end, with a Future Rotorcraft Capability program emerging from the Ministry of Defence. But this is as much about defense industrial strategy as military capability. That’s why before the procurement process gets under way, ministers from the industry, treasury, defense departments and others will meet at a Cabinet subcommittee gathering around March 15 to decide whether AgustaWestland will get an uncontested run at the bulk of the program, which will replace Lynx and Puma helicopters in several service branches. (See: BATTLESPACE ALERT Vol.7 ISSUE 5, February 7th 2005, KBR UK APPOINTED ‘PHYSICAL INTEGRATOR’ FOR UK MoD’S AIRCRAFT CARRIER PROGRAMME and BATTLESPACE UPDATE Vol.7 ISSUE 6, 10th February 2005, SUPER LYNX ON HOLD?)
One MoD source said there was a 50/50 chance the government could opt for a competition. “It’s wide open which way they will jump,” he said. “It’s even possible they could hedge their bets and compete some of the program and reserve other bits for Italian-owned AgustaWestland.”
In the last few months, the British government has woken up to the fact that the open-market defense procurement policies of the last 20 years have seriously eroded the industrial base. Talks have been under way between the MoD and industry in several sectors — rotorcraft among them — to forge a strategy protecting core capabilities.
Now the government is trying to decide whether British competence can best be preserved by throwing a protective cloak around AgustaWestland or by inviting new suppliers into the sector via competition.
A decision not to go for a competition would be a neat turn of the tables for the Italians. Last year, they were hurt by an MoD decision not to allow the Aermacchi 346 jet trainer to compete with BAE SYSTEMS’ Hawk for a Royal Air Force requirement. Aermacchi and AgustaWestland are both owned by Italian giant Finmeccanica. Eurocopter parent EADS, long squeezed out of Europe’s largest military market by AgustaWestland and Boeing, has already thrown its hat into the ring. In an unsolicited proposal to the MoD in November, Eurocopter held out the potential for a long-term local industrial capability — an assembly and support deal with AgustaWestland — if its helicopter was selected. Media reports at the time also suggested the Franco-German firm would consider creating U.K. facilities if AgustaWestland balked at cooperation. The offer so intrigued MoD officials that two weeks ago, they lifted a moratorium placed on talks with the company during the rotorcraft study.
EADS declined to elaborate on the talks, but a spokesman said, “We believe it would be in everyone’s best interest to have an open competition once a requirement is decided upon.” An MoD spokesman said Feb. 25 it was not government policy to comment on Cabinet committee meetings. He also declined to say whether the moratorium on EADS had been lifted.
At stake is a possible requirement to replace Royal Air Force Puma medium-lift helicopters and British Army Lynxes with reconnaissance/utility helicopters, and Royal Navy Lynxes with a reconnaissance/attack variant. In addition, Navy Sea Kings also will eventually be replaced, and the British military also is likely to beef up its Chinook heavy-lift capabilities. Details of how the British intend to fill their helicopter requirements are unlikely to emerge until midyear. Progress, as with other defense programs, will likely be slowed by a general el