Douglas Barrie/LONDON

William Cohen, the US defence secretary, has written to his UK counterpart, George Robertson, offering critical assurances concerning the latter's £850 million ($1.4 billion) procurement of a next generation beyond visual range (BVR) air-to-air missile (BVRAAM).

US missile giant Raytheon Systems is competing with Matra BAe Dynamics for the procurement. Winning the contest is important for both companies, since it will launch the next generation of BVR missiles.

Revised BVRAAM bids were submitted on 28May and the Cohen letter was received by Robertson shortly before this deadline. A final decision on the choice of weapon is expected to be made in early 1999.

Details of the Cohen letter, provided to Flight International, are intended to address concerns that a US missile procurement would leave the UK vulnerable to US export restrictions, shackling potential overseas sales of the Eurofighter EF2000.

This is a concern understandably flagged up by the Matra BAe Dynamics-led team, offering its Meteor missile. Meteor programme director Peter Richardson says: "We need a weapon that can be exported-The Meteor avoids total reliance on the US for future medium range air-to-air missiles."

One source close to the missile competition says that the Cohen letter is intended to "-pull the teeth of this argument." Cohen offers Robertson the assurance that the availability of the missile will not be used as leverage in fighter competitions where, for instance, US and European aircraft are in contention.

Cohen, say Whitehall sources, assures Robertson that there will be "open and complete technology transfer" if the Raytheon Future Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (FMRAAM) is selected.

The letter adds that the FMRAAM will be freed for sale to countries which are (or will be) cleared for the Raytheon AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM), by the time the advanced weapon enters Royal Air Force service. Some 30 countries are expected to be AMRAAM-cleared by shortly after the turn of the century.

In the case of "sensitive countries", Cohen is proposing that a joint commission be established between the UK and the USA to consider release of the FMRAAM on a case-by-case basis.

Source: Flight International