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Eurosam courts UK as BMD partner

EUROSAM HAS proposed to the UK that it join the Franco-Italian Aster missile programme to meet its emerging requirement for a tactical ballistic-missile defence (TBMD) system.

The UK Ministry of Defence is funding a British Aerospace-led study into the TBMD following the indefinite delay in its own medium-range surface-to-air missile programme.

Eurosam managing director Etienne Lefort says: "Why not consider Aster as a candidate for ballistic-missile defence, and join France and Italy... Proposals have been made to the UK industry and Government." He qualifies the talks as "informal discussions".

The Eurosam partners, Aerospatiale, Alenia, and Thomson-CSF, are now finalising the industrialisation phase of the programme. The aim is to complete the $1 billion phase 2 contract by the end of July and to have it in place by the end of the year.

The first of the Aster 15 and Aster 30 naval surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems are scheduled to be deployed after the turn of the century on the French navy's Charles De Gaulle aircraft carrier and the Italian navy's planned second carrier.

Operational testing of the ground-launched Aster is due to begin in 2003.

The Aster will also be fitted to the Horizon air-defence frigate for the French, Italian and UK navies. Although a purchase of up to 24 of these ships is planned, Lefort expects that this number could fall significantly, perhaps to as few as 12 ships.

Lefort appears relatively sanguine about France's decision to withdraw from the US-led Medium Extended Air-Defence System (MEADS) programme in which Germany and Italy are participating. Some US participants in the MEADS warn that, unless Germany and Italy commit long-term financial support for the project relatively quickly, then the US Department of Defense will push ahead independently.

The ground-launched Aster system is being aimed at the Raytheon Hawk SAM-replacement market. Countries such as South Korea are viewed as potential purchasers.

In this area, Eurosam will be being competing against Hughes and Raytheon, offering the Hughes AIM-120 modified to fit the present Hawk launcher. The missiles could possibly be, says Hughes, modified ex-US Air Force-inventory AIM-120As, which could be freed for sale.