Blair caught in missile crossfire

UK aerospace giant launches emotive campaign for Government to buy its state-of-the-art weapon for Eurofighter
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The Independent Online
A pounds 1bn duel between two missile manufacturers saw massive pressure placed on Tony Blair last week to "buy British" and save jobs in the European missile industry.

The consortium led by British Aerospace, which is behind the Meteor bid to supply air-to-air missiles for the RAF's new Eurofighters, placed a series of advertisements branding their sole competitor, the US-based Raytheon, as an unidentified "threat from Arizona".

But choosing the British-led option could mean that the taxpayer pays up to twice as much as for the American version, when many question the strategic need for the pioneering fast-speed Meteor.

The full-page ads - part of a campaign rumoured to be costing up to pounds 500,000 - carried a sinister-looking photograph of a faceless pilot under the words: "He risked his life for the Falklands, Kuwait and Kosovo. The last thing he needs is a threat from Arizona."

Signed by BAe and its partners in the Meteor missile programme, which include Matra, Alenia Marconi Systems, Saab Dynamics and Boeing, it employed emotive language to whip up public and parliamentary support by implying that British pilots could be at risk from sub-standard equipment.

"Air superiority can only be achieved with the right weapons systems," said the advert. "Our pilots deserve nothing less than the best. Eurofighter and Meteor - the winning combination."

The campaign comes shortly before senior officials and military officers are due to meet at the Ministry of Defence to recommend their preferred bidder to the Cabinet. Although the final decision on the contract - which will be worth up to pounds 1bn - will ultimately be made by the Prime Minister, the campaign is a blatant attempt to exploit the patriotic angle.

Defending the ads, which will continue this week, a BAe spokesman said: "We are making sure that everyone is aware of the issues surrounding the competition. This is a critical contract for both the British and European defence industries, and our pilots need something better to bring them back safely."

Raytheon said: "We believe the right people already know what the facts are about these weapons, and we're not going to enter an emotive debate. But we are a little upset at the tone of the ads."

The Government's decision is not only critical for the whole future of the European missile industry - which would be dealt a bitter blow if the US bid is successful - but for its whole defence policy.

"Britain is pulled two ways between its special relationship with the US, which the defence establishment is reluctant to give up, and the growing influence to hitch up with the Europeans," said Chris Pocock, defence editor of Aviation International News.

BAe claims that if the Meteor bid is successful it would create 2,000 new British jobs, many of them hi-tech. However, it accepts that the Government will also have to take fundamental technological differences into account.

The Meteor is a new type of ramjet-powered missile, which will travel longer and faster than the more conventional option offered by Raytheon. It would place its European manufacturers at the forefront of missile weapons technology.

But Mr Blair and his ministers will also have to decide whether such an advanced weapon is really needed.