Douglas Barrie/LONDON

THE UK GOVERNMENT has headed off an embarrassing political and military confrontation with a last-minute decision to award three key Royal Air Force contracts, worth almost £4 billion, which were being blocked by the UK Treasury.

British Aerospace is the prime beneficiary, winning contracts for a replacement maritime-patrol aircraft, along with a conventionally armed stand-off missile (CASOM). GEC-Marconi has been selected to supply an advanced air-launched anti-armour missile.

BAe will upgrade 21 RAF Nimrod MR2s to Nimrod 2000 standard, with the BAe Dynamics Storm Shadow derivative of the Matra Apache missile meeting the CASOM requirement. GEC's Brimstone millimetre-wave-guided variant of the US Hellfire will be the RAF's anti-tank missile.

The last-ditch deal was brokered on 24 July by UK Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine after defence minister Michael Portillo appeared to have lost the argument with Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor of the Exchequer to keep the contracts on track. Sources close to the procurement decision say that Portillo and Air Marshal Sir Michael Graydon, Chief of the Air Staff, had been "very angry" at the Treasury moves. A delay to the programmes would have undermined Portillo's credibility, while Graydon had reluctantly accepted earlier cuts in RAF personnel numbers on the basis only that key procurements would go ahead.

The Treasury had been hoping to push any announcement on the projects beyond the national budget in November, in which the Tory Government is seeking to slash spending to allow tax cuts ahead of an election in 1997. All three procurements would have then gone back into the Public Expenditure Survey, with no guarantee of funding being available.

If politics played a part in the decision, they also played a large part in the winning recipients. The BAe Nimrod bid has been massaged at the behest of senior politicians to include GEC, which had been a major player in the Lockheed Martin bid with its Orion 2000. BAe initially had Boeing as its sole mission-system supplier.

Announcing the order, Portillo revealed that "-key elements of the mission system will be provided through a strategic partnership between GEC and Boeing".

MoD officials admit that this strategic partnership is a "recent development" and that a "-fair amount of work now needs to be done to refine that". As well as pulling GEC into the bid, the MoD has also elected for the Racal Searchwater 2000MR radar. This was despite all three final bidders offering the Israeli Elta El/2020 as the baseline. The Nimrod 2000 will be fitted with the BMW Rolls-Royce BR710. The first revamped aircraft will be delivered in 2002.

The selection of the BAe bid for the CASOM also clears the way for the merger of BAe Dynamics with Matra of France. The French Government had been pressing the UK by blocking the merger until the Storm Shadow was selected.

The Storm Shadow and the Brimstone, which will equip the Panavia Tornado GR4, British Aerospace Harrier GR7 and the Eurofighter EF2000, will enter service in 2001.

Source: Flight International