The US Navy is signalling to BAE Systems that time is rapidly running out for it to secure a US partner to compete for the Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft (MMA) programme, following Naval Air System Command (Navair)'s surprise award of only two preliminary Component Advanced Development (CAD) contracts to Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Navair MMA programme manager Capt Al Easterling does not rule out awarding a third pre-development risk reduction and study contract, but warns: "If there is another, it needs to happen quickly - by next month."

BAE originally said it would not compete for the MMA without local manufacturing support, but more recently said it was prepared to go it alone, at least in the initial CAD phase. The planned 17-month CAD period is structured to allow competitors to vary their teaming, but despite this, BAE has reverted to its earlier position and declined a contract until a partner is found for its Nimrod MRA4 offering.

"We're still in discussions with the Department of Defense and looking at potential teaming arrangements," says BAE. But with Boeing and Lockheed Martin already beginning work on CAD Phase I and the US fiscal year closing at the end of September, there is little time left for BAE to pick up the $7 million contract.

BAE has held talks with Boeing and, more recently, Lockheed Martin. The latter proposes an Orion 21 new-build version of the P-3C turboprop, but there is thought to be concern within the company that the USN favours a turbofan-powered aircraft. The USN "is not discouraging" Lockheed Martin from talking to BAE, says an industry official.

A further complication is a new EADS effort to interest the USN in an MMA version of the Airbus A320 as an alternative to the Boeing 737. Earlier this year Lockheed Martin backed away from a deal with EADS to offer the A320 after internal political concerns. Unlike BAE, EADS does not have the security clearance to compete for MMA as a prime contractor.

In five months' time, the USN is due to choose two or three concepts to advance into CAD Phase II, but industry sources say current rules could be reviewed to allow a bidder to modify its platform offering. Navair remains adamant that it must make a final down select by early 2004, or risk losing funding.



Source: Flight International