THE INDUSTRIAL competence of the UK's second-biggest defence manufacturer has been called into question during an extraordinary Parliamentary Defence Committee hearing on the problems of the Phoenix unmanned air vehicle (UAV).

Cancellation of the £227 million GEC-Marconi Avionics-developed reconnaissance and targeting UAV programme is being "very seriously considered", according to Dennis Maines, the UK Ministry of Defence's (MoD) director-general for guided weapons and electronic systems.

The MoD review considering cancellation, revealed exclusively in Flight International, (25-31 January) is a result of what committee member Winston Churchill MP describes as the company's "lamentable performance".

The Phoenix was due, to enter service with the British Army in 1989. The latest in-service date was October of this year, but the MoD now admits that, if it opts to continue with the project, a further two-year minimum delay will be incurred. Such a delay would see the Phoenix enter service no earlier than the end of 1997 - eight years late.

Referring to the option of canceling the Phoenix, Maines says: "The fundamental question is: has the company got the resolve to complete the system in a time-scale acceptable to the MoD?"

Answering MPs' questions on GEC's attitude toward the programme, Maines says that it "...took its eye off the ball", although he adds that GEC now claims that it is "...totally committed to satisfying the customer".

With a decision on the future of the programme imminent, the MoD and GEC are gathering ammunition for what would be a highly contentious legal battle over penalty clauses in the fixed-price contract.

While many of the technical problems, which have bedeviled the Phoenix programme have been resolved, the method of recovery, continues to cause unacceptable levels of damage.

The UAV is parachute-recovered, upside-down, with frangible elements of the fuselage breaking off to absorb the impact. Unfortunately, other non-frangible elements of the air vehicle were also sustaining considerable damage.

In an attempt to resolve the problem, GEC is now looking an equipping the UAV with an air bag, similar to those used in motor cars, to absorb impact of landing.

Source: Flight International