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UK to decide on future helicopters

MOD poised to reveal whether it will compete deal for new battlefield fleet or award contract to AgustaWestland

The direction of the UK's planned £3 billion ($5.7 billion) acquisition of a new fleet of battlefield helicopters is expected to be revealed this week, following a key Ministry of Defence meeting that will determine whether to open the requirement to competition or place a sole-source contract with national supplier AgustaWestland.

The 15 March decision will prove a key test of the UK's ability to balance its smart acquisition policy with its desire to ensure the survivability of a national production base for advanced rotorcraft.

Rivals to the UK's incumbent helicopter supplier AgustaWestland have over recent months voiced increasing concern over the MoD's potential willingness to award the company a non-competitive deal to supply its armed forces with additional EH101 Merlin and Future Lynx utility helicopters.

With Italian-owned Agusta-Westland having tasted recent and surprise success as part of the Lockheed Martin-led US101 team selected to meet the US Navy's $6.1 billion VXX presidential helicopter requirement, its rivals say the UK would appear hypocritical by dismissing rival systems after its industry benefited from an open contest in the USA.

If the UK decides to launch a competitive process for its battlefield helicopter recapitalisation, designs including the EADS-promoted NH Industries NH90, Boeing's CH-47 Chinook and Sikorsky's CH-53 could be considered against the EH101, with products such as Eurocopter's EC635 to potentially rival the Future Lynx for the Battlefield Light Utility Helicopter and Surface Combatant Maritime Rotorcraft requirements (Flight International, 30 November–6 December 2004). While it was a late entrant to the UK programme, EADS says it is now "actively participating" in the process and is keen to support the UK supplier base given a successful NH90/EC635 campaign.

A new phase of competition will further delay the MoD's introduction of helicopters to address its capability shortfall in battlefield rotorcraft, but as the selected aircraft will remain in service for decades, AgustaWestland's rivals say the UK must make an informed and competitive choice to ensure the long-term effectiveness of its armed forces and industrial base.

CRAIG HOYLE/LONDON

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