Saturday, January 29, 2005

A spanner in the works?

Several random thoughts occur at the news that the Anglo-Italian designed AgustaWestland US101 has been selected by US Navy for the presidential helicopter replacement programme.

The first is why the US president should need 23 helicopters, at a cost of $1.7 billion. The second – at the risk of being accused of that heinous crime, pro-Americanism - is approval of the US for selecting a foreign helicopter design for their presidential fleet. One wonders if l’escroc Chirac would ever buy an American helicopter for his personal transport.

On a more serious note, this is something of a turn round for the EH101 project. It was approved in 1984 by Heseltine as the Navy’s tactical anti-submarine helicopter, replacing the ageing Sea Kings. But it soon ran into trouble and ended up setting the record as the most expensive helicopter ever built, at £100 million each, for what became the Merlin.

In the end, the project had to be bailed out by the US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, which carried out the final systems development. After some teething troubles, the aircraft has emerged as a successful medium-lift helicopter in service with the armed forces of the UK, Italy Portugal, Denmark and Canada.

Although 65 percent of the construction work will be carried out in the US and additional systems will be added by US contractors, led by Lockheed Martin, this still represents a considerable boost for the British and Italian designers. It has considerably annoyed United Technology’s Sikorsky Aircraft unit, which has built and maintained the Marine One helicopters that have flown the president since 1957.

In awarding the contract for the helicopter, the navy rejected Sikorsky's argument that the president should fly in a helicopter, call-signed "Marine One", that was 100 percent US-made.
It is, in fact, the first time the US defence market has been open to a foreign helicopter, and all the more remarkable that is should involve such a prestige project. It may also have spin-offs into other US military fields.

British government officials were delighted by the decision. They said it would help Blair show that his close relationship with Bush can bring dividends.

As for the Americans, John Young, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, said: "This decision truly reflects the best value and capability for the American taxpayer who is funding it, the Marines who will operate it and the future presidents who will fly in it."

Quite what the long-term implications of the deal are is uncertain at this stage but the sales competition was seen as a litmus test as to whether European firms could compete successfully in the US defence market.

However, given that the EU commission is anxious to develop a European defence market, buoyed by the difficulty experienced by European defence contractors in breaking into the US market, there is a possibility here that the US – intentionally or otherwise – has delayed or even sabotaged EU attempts to pursue its programme of defence integration.

Marine One, therefore, could represent a significant spanner in the works.

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