Boeing is joining forces with rival Airbus in the £1bn contest to replace Britain’s workhorse battlefield helicopter as concerns rise that the original in-service date of 2025 can no longer be met.
The US aerospace and defence group will provide air crew, ground crew and maintenance training if Airbus’s offer to build a new helicopter is selected to replace the Royal Air Force’s ageing Puma support machines.
The two companies, which compete fiercely for commercial aircraft orders from airlines, teamed up last year on another helicopter procurement.
Airbus joined Boeing’s industry team last March as part of Germany’s planned purchase of 60 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters manufactured by the US group to replace its ageing CH-53 fleet.
In the UK competition, Boeing will be joining Airbus’s existing consortium, which includes Babcock International and Spirit AeroSystems’ business in Northern Ireland. The consortium is competing against rival offers from Leonardo UK and Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky.
The £1bn-plus contract, for up to 44 new machines, was launched in 2021. The contract was expected to be awarded this year with a goal of bringing the new helicopters into service by 2025.
That date, which was always considered ambitious, has been pushed back amid delays to the procurement process and inter-governmental wrangling over defence spending following the Ukraine war, two people familiar with the competition confirmed.
Executives from the main contenders met with officials from the Ministry of Defence at the end of February to discuss a revised timetable for the competition, the two people said.
The high-profile contract was going to be one of the first to test the government’s more “strategic” approach to defence procurement as outlined in the defence industrial strategy from spring 2021.
Instead of focusing on competition by default, the new strategy has promised to take greater account of the social and economic factors offered by bidders during the selection process.
A minimum 10 per cent weighting towards the social value of a contract will be applied in competitions.
Most of the bidders have tried to burnish their UK credentials. Airbus has promised to build a new production line at its operations in Broughton, Wales, where the company builds wings for its commercial aircraft.
Leonardo UK, which owns Britain’s only existing helicopter factory in Yeovil, Somerset, has promised to build a new line at the site and introduce digital manufacturing skills as part of a £1bn investment programme.
The importance of spending on British-based companies has taken on greater urgency following the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the war in Ukraine.
Analysts have warned that retaining onshore capabilities is critical if the UK is to be able to make modifications or upgrades to equipment in the future.
The MoD was not immediately available for comment.
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