If anyone thought that the success of the European-designed US101 had opened the USA's gates to foreign companies, they would be wrong

Foreign participation in the US Army's Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter (ARH) competition has taken some odd twists. First, a budding transatlantic bidding war for the 368-aircraft order disappeared seemingly overnight, leaving two US-based contractors submitting the only proposals. Now, the two ARH rivals seem to trying hard to omit references to the offshore elements on their own teams.

Vying to replace the army's Bell Helicopter OH-58D Kiowa Warrior are: a variant of the Bell 407, which is made in Canada, and a Boeing proposal based on Dutch-owned (MDHI) MD Helicopters' MD 530 - the basis for the army's AH/MH-6 Little Bird. AgustaWestland and Eurocopter abstained from the contest, largely driven off by a stiff army requirement for a helicopter that can be loaded on a Lockheed Martin C-130 in 15min.

To be sure, the remaining ARH bids hardly represent foreign participation on the scale of the Lockheed Martin-led US101 bid for the next US presidential helicopter fleet, which gave about a third of work to industry in the UK and Italy. However, the issue is made noticeable on ARH by the two competitors' silence.

For example, Bell has publicly billed the 407 ARH as a "Texas-built aircraft". This claim is partly true. The aircraft's dynamic components, such as rotors and gearboxes, are made in Fort Worth in the Lone Star state. But Bell also plans to use the 407 production line in Canada. If the company wins the competition, green aircraft would be assembled in Montreal, then flown to Amarillo for mission-system integration.

Meanwhile, Boeing's bid may be based on the Little Bird, but the company declines to acknowledge any formal ties with Dutch-owned MDHI. This is despite statements at the recent Heli-Expo show by MDHI chief executive Henk Schaeken, who confirmed the company has a formal link with Boeing on the ARH bid.

This is just the latest twist in the tortured saga of MDHI, formed when Dutch engineering group RDM acquired the former Hughes civil helicopter line from Boeing. The company has struggled financially ever since, and was on the brink of collapse before Boeing stepped in to safeguard the Little Bird, seen by many as the leading contender in the ARH competition.

To further complicate matters, MDHI has confirmed that it is in talks with potential Chinese investors - something that makes sense for a commercial helicopter manufacturer, but might be frowned on by the US Army. For the two ARH competitors, therefore, foreign participation seems to be a source of some embarrassment.

Amazingly, this behaviour is emerging less than a month after the biggest victory yet for a transatlantic team - the $6.1 billion, 23-aircraft VXX presidential helicopter order captured by the US101, which is based on the EH101 design and dynamic components produced by AgustaWestland in the UK and Italy.

Despite the US101's success, other US contractors seem to be deterred by the emotional and political backlash that followed the VXX contract award. Even now, four US lawmakers - representing the home turf of Sikorsky, the losing US bidder for VXX - are seeking to introduce legislation that would force the US Navy to redirect all or part of the contract to the Connecticut-based helicopter maker.

All of this can perhaps be viewed as another sign of the erratic and sometimes irrational business atmosphere created when a globalised aerospace industry clashes with the politics of economic isolationism. And the irrationality is not restricted to the US side, it seems.

Hot on the heels of AgustaWestland's VXX victory, another Finmeccanica company, Alenia, has essentially dumped Lockheed Martin from its bid to supply C-27J tactical transports to the US Army. Instead, the Italian manufacturer has teamed up with US firm L-3 Communications to prime the bid, demoting Lockheed - the company that led the winning VXX team - to the status of critical supplier.

Every competition is different, and Lockheed's success in the VXX contest is no guarantee that it could have led a winning C-27J bid. But Alenia's move to team with L-3 seems calculated to establish the Italian company's name in the USA. Time will tell whether it has underestimated the competitive advantage it can gain from Italy's status as a US ally in Iraq.

It is both an exciting and a frustrating time for foreign industry in the USA. There are signs that the US military is more willing than ever before to buy foreign-designed products, but politically the "buy American" sentiment is at its highest for years, fuelled by disagreement over US action in Iraq and outrage over the outsourcing of US jobs. It is unlikely that entirely rational competitive behaviour will prevail any time soon.

Source: Flight International