Douglas Barrie/LONDON

A high-level US delegation visited the UK in early January in an eleventh-hour attempt to persuade the Government to procure a variant of the Northrop Grumman Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) to meet its Airborne Stand-Off Radar (ASTOR ) requirement.

The delegation, say US sources, included senior Northrop Grumman managers associated with the JSTARS programme, as well as US Air Force staff. They are understood to have held discussions with UK Ministry of Defence Procurement Executive officials, as well as with Air Vice Marshal Chris Coville, Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff Operational Requirements (Air Systems).

One of the key areas of the discussion is a potential collaborative radar development, believed to be based on a "black" US programme. The US in-service date for this radar is around 2005, with the platform thought to be a low-observable manned, or possibly unmanned, aircraft.

Final responses for the ASTOR competition are due by the end of February. Northrop Grumman's last-minute proposal will be considered alongside offers from Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. The latter is in the process of acquiring Northrop Grumman.

The US Government-brokered Northrop Grumman proposal, based on the Gulfstream V business jet, is being offered for the UK MoD's £750 million ($1.1 billion) ASTOR programme, with the joint radar development also fulfilling a USAF requirement. It is possible that the USAF could procure the ASTOR platform.

The USAF, after suffering a cut in numbers of Boeing E-8C JSTARS aircraft to be bought, is considering smaller aircraft. The US Government offer, is based on joint radar development and procurement. This could also be offered for the NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance project.

The US Government initiative has proved highly contentious on both sides of the Atlantic. In the USA, at least one rival bidder is known to have raised questions about whether the proposal is in breach of Government guidelines.

Senior UK procurement officials, meanwhile, have been concerned over the UK Government's disregard for the acquisition process. Northrop Grumman has been eliminated twice before.

While the ASTOR requirement is thought to have been supported within the Government's continuing Strategic Defence Review, there is concern that the timescale may slip, and its entry into service be delayed.

Source: Flight International