Howard Gethin/LONDON

The UK Ministry of Defence has opened a contest for the contract worth up to £1.48 billion ($2.44 billion) to build two aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy.

Invitations to tender have been issued to six potential prime contractors: British Aerospace Defence Systems, Marconi Electronic Systems, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Thomson-CSF have been invited to tender. The programme begins with four years of study.

The contest will offer an early indication of the vertical integration capabilities of BAe following the company's move to acquire Marconi Electronic Systems. The two companies combined could offer everything from aircraft and warship building, through to command and control, radar and weapons packages.

The contest will be shrunk to three contenders this year, later narrowing to two, with the winner to be selected in 2003.

The shape of the carrier will be determined by the outcome of the contest for the Future Carrierborne Aircraft (FCBA). The choice of a Joint Strike Fighter-type combat aircraft would allow a short take-off vertical landing or short take-off arrested landing vessel. A conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) configuration is possible, with a navalised Eurofighter EF2000 an option.

The ships will displace up to 40,000t and carry up to 50 aircraft, with a complement of 1,200 personnel, including the air group -a number similar to the 20,000t Invincible class that carries BAe Sea Harrier F/A2s.

The new carrier will have no specifically defined surface to air missile requirement, although installation of a defensive system is probable. "The prime contractor will be given a survivability target - it's then up to them how to meet it," the MoD says.

The ships will be able to operate all UK military helicopter types and unmanned aerial vehicles, including the Boeing Chinook and EH Industries Merlin. The vessel will be "all electric", using conventional powerplants with coupled electric motors to remove the need for complex and heavy gearboxes.

One key part of the system, built-in airborne early warning, remains dependent on the type of combat aircraft selected, with a fixed-wing aircraft an option for a CTOL design. Catapult launching is under study, with steam or electromagnetic solutions possible.

Although the prime contractors are aerospace firms, the ships will be built in UK yards, with Harland and Wolff, Marconi Barrow, Kvaerner Govan and Swan Hunter all potential bidders.

Source: Flight International