Douglas Barrie/LONDON

AFTER A TWO-and-a-half-year battle, the Westland/McDonnell Douglas WAH-64D Apache Longbow has won the British Army's attack-helicopter requirement. The UK Government announced its decision on 13 July.

The winner secures a deal worth some £2.5 billion ($4 billion), while the losers - GEC/Bell, with the Cobra Venom, and British Aerospace/Eurocopter, with the Tiger, are left with a campaign bill estimated to be around £25 million apiece.

In his first major announcement following his appointment as successor to Malcolm Rifkind as Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Portillo said that the competition was carried out with the "utmost rigour and objectivity", before the decision to purchase the AH-64D was taken.

The helicopters will be powered by the Rolls-Royce/Turbom‚ca RTM322 engine, rather than the US General Electric T700.

The UK is to purchase only 67 helicopters, although a baseline procurement of around 90 was expected. All the AH-64Ds will, however, be equipped with the Lockheed Martin Longbow millimetre-wave (MMW) target-acquisition radar. Portillo maintains that, despite the reduction in numbers, the helicopter will "...satisfy the task we have to do".

Whitehall sources say that they were "surprised" at just how big a difference the MMW radar made to the results of their combat modelling. It was expected that a mix of AH-64D and Longbow-equipped AH-64Ds would be the favoured option. Given the results of the modelling, the decision was taken to procure a reduced number of helicopters, all equipped with the MMW radar.

The AH-64Ds will be fitted with a mixture of imaging infra-red and radio-frequency-guided Hellfire air-to-surface missiles.

The decision to buy the Apache also means the UK is withdrawing from the Long Range Trigat missile programme - the proposed anti-tank weapon for the Tiger, once development is complete.

A decision on which air-to-air missile (AAM) to procure for the helicopter will not be taken for a further 18 months.

Whitehall sources say that the choice of a missile for the AH-64Ds will be taken following the results of a US Army test project to include the Shorts Starstreak AAM on its AH-64s.

Although the Starstreak is the UK Ministry of Defence's favoured option, officials admit there are some "tricky problems" to be overcome in turning the Starstreak into an AAM.

Portillo stresses that the decision was not intended as a slight to either France or Germany. He says that he had written to his counterparts in both countries in an attempt to reassure them over the UK's position in defence collaboration.

France had exerted considerable political pressure on the UK to substantiate its European procurement credentials by purchasing the Tiger. Portillo points out, however, that "...the Dutch, who are very good Europeans, have also gone for the Apache".

British Aerospace, predictably, laments the decision, with similar language to that which it had used, with more success, during its campaign in favour of the European collaborative Future Large Aircraft project.

BAe Defence chairman John Weston expresses concern over the UK's position on European collaboration. "This decision will make the UK a less attractive partner as consolidation within the industry continues."

Whether the UK is now a "less attractive partner" is open to debate: what is certain is that BAe is now a less attractive partner for Eurocopter. It remains to be seen what will happen to this embryonic business relationship, which also potentially covered the NH90 utility-helicopter project, and other helicopter-related activities.

BAe had set its sights on helicopter and warship-systems integration as the two main areas of expansion outside its traditional defence business. In the space of a month, it has lost the attack-helicopter competition and been defeated by GEC in its bid to buy warship-builder VSEL.

BAe also faces the problem of a merger of its Dynamics missile business with Matra awaiting long-overdue French Government approval, while Paris considers wider UK defence- procurement intentions.

In trying to defuse BAe's political argument over the integration of the European military-helicopter industry, Westland argued that, as the UK's sole helicopter manufacturer, it should enter the next phase of this from a position of strength.

With the AH-64D in its portfolio, Westland believes that it can approach any further moves towards consolidation in Europe with confidence, an outcome which many believe is inevitable.

Whether Eurocopter feels obliged to pursue its vision of a unified European helicopter-manufacturing capability through BAe, or whether it will now deal directly with Westland, remains to be determined.

Ironically, it was another industrial issue, that of offset, which caused some alarm in the Westland camp in the months before the decision.

With BAe/Eurocopter playing the European card, and GEC talking up the prospects of the Cobra Venom, there was consternation over the perceived weakness of the initial McDonnell Douglas industrial package.

Once this weakness was recognised, Westland and McDonnell Douglas improved the UK element of the programme, with Rolls-Royce and Shorts coming to prominence.

The decision may also mark the end of GEC's tentative foray into the rotary-wing world. The company's marketing campaign managed to sustain its Cobra Venom bid, despite question marks over exactly what was being proposed, particularly in the shape of a nebulous joint UK/US Marine Corps programme.

As is traditional within Lord Weinstock's empire when faced with defeat, the company declines to comment on the decision.


Source: Flight International