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Malaysia's Eurocopter selection kicks up dirt

Controversy surrounds Malaysia's decision to select the Eurocopter EC725 Cougar to replace its Sikorsky S-61 "Nuri" helicopters, with competitors and opposition parties taking the government to task for selecting the type without conducting flight trials.

The EADS subsidiary confirms that it is in negotiations to sell 12 helicopters with Malaysia's defence ministry, which chose the type over the AgustaWestland AW101, Boeing CH-47, Kazan Mi-172, Mil Mi-17 and Sikorsky S-92. "We have received a letter of intent and we hope to sign a contract shortly," Eurocopter says.

"Eurocopter offered a system that was proven, and this also fulfilled the army's specifications," says the defence ministry's secretary-general Abu Bakar Abdullah. He adds that the proposal received the highest marks in a technical evaluation, offered a competitive offset package and had the most reasonable price.

Eurocopter EC725 Patrick Penna Eurocopter
 © Patrick Penna/Eurocopter

However, Malaysia's Public Accounts Committee (PAC), a parliamentary body that looks into government funding, has begun an investigation into the tender after complaints that it was skewed in Eurocopter's favour.

Industry sources say the Royal Malaysian Air Force and defence ministry did not issue a shortlist from the invited bidders, a normal practice in military contracts, and failed to conduct proper flight trials after the companies responded to last year's request for proposals.

In response, Bakar says the air force had kept abreast of the latest advances in military helicopter technology by visiting defence shows. "There is no need for the technical committee to do physical evaluations of the helicopters at the bidders' facilities," he says. "This would also mean that the transparent process and integrity of the six men in the technical committee would not be compromised."

Opposition members of parliament, however, have called on the government to suspend the letter of intent until the committee completes its investigation. "The PAC should also scrutinise the way the tender team has carried out the selection and check the scoring system to ensure there is no partiality in the grading," says one.

Despite the controversy, most industry sources do not believe the defence ministry will call off the tender. "They have decided on the EC725 and they are unlikely to change their mind. Even if a fresh tender is called, it is still likely to go to Eurocopter," says one source close to the defence ministry.

Others suggest that Kuala Lumpur, which requires about 48 helicopters to replace its Nuris, could go for another supplier in a follow-up tender. The Malaysian army also has a separate requirement for utility helicopters.

Replacing the S-61s has taken on added urgency after several fatal crashes in the past few years, including six people killed in a July 2007 accident.

The air force's requirement was for a type with a glass cockpit, retractable landing gear and foldable rotor blades that can perform search and rescue operations or transport around 20 personnel by day or night. The government is believed to want to complete deliveries by early 2010.

Malaysia has several other pending helicopter requirements, including one for an additional six AgustaWestland Super Lynx 300 helicopters and six SAR aircraft for its Maritime Enforcement Agency.

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