The UK Government's decision to buy a mix of EH Industries EH101s and Boeing Chinook helicopters for its armed forces, instead of opting for one or the other, might seem like a typical, British fudge. In the short term - it may be - in the long term - it definitely is not. The choice may ultimately be seen, as more farsighted, than the politicians who made it.

The EH101 decision follows closely on that for the Royal Air Force's new transport aircraft. Here too, the commitment was split between more of an existing US product and some of a developing European product. Both decisions reflect a huge change in thinking for a Conservative Government whose previous position has been one of lowest cost at all costs. As such, they represent a growing maturity of industrial policy at the belated expense of simplistic dogma.

The support of national or local industry is an important consideration for all governments interested in keeping their citizens in work and themselves in power. To support it at all costs is ultimately as short-sighted as to ignore it at all costs: to strike a balance which preserves local industry at an economic and competitive level is a skill which few have mastered.

The EH101 may appear an expensive option when compared with the larger and cheaper Chinook - but they are not comparable aircraft. One of the mistakes, which the UK Government has made in this procurement, was in letting the country think that they are. The Chinook is an old design - admirably updated, but still old. As it ages, its greater maintenance requirements and limitations will become more pronounced and increasingly outweigh its undenied usefulness. The EH101 is a new design and should be in reliable service for years after the Chinook has ceased to be an economic alternative.

The importance of the EH101 for European industry is that it is a modern helicopter with modern equipment: without it, that industry could be reduced to licence assembly and support of other nations' equipment. That is business, but it is not the quality of business, which the building of new-generation equipment represents. Once a company or national industry drops out of that business, it is difficult, if not impossible, to return.

The pity with the EH101 is that it is not pan-European, but only Anglo-Italian. Other European partners have the NH90 - a smaller, forward-area, utility machine which the British Army originally wanted and which it would still like to have alongside the RAF's EH101s and Chinooks.

Roger Freeman, the UK's minister for defence procurement, speaks of the desirability of a Western European Union, collective procurement policy. There could be few better places for it to start than in the helicopter market, both with these utility machines and with the attack helicopters over which the UK and the Netherlands are debating independently.

Source: Flight International