GEC plays trump in helicopter race

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GEC yesterday made a surprise last-minute attempt to boost its chances of winning a pounds 2bn attack helicopter order by unveiling a new version of its aircraft.

The company, which has teamed up with the US group Bell, also said a pounds 500m re-fit contract from the US Marines could depend on the UK government choosing its Cobra Venom helicopter.

British Aerospace and Westland, which are part of rival teams bidding for the order, dismissed GEC's move, which comes about five weeks before the Ministry of Defence is expected to make its choice.

GEC's bid to supply 91 helicopters was based on the Cobra being fitted with a state-of-the-art cockpit full of GEC avionics. But Brian Tucker, managing director of GEC-Marconi Aerospace Systems, said the firm was now offering the helicopter with a four-blade rotor rather than the original two-blade version. It will give the Cobra Venom much greater performance, with a 50 per cent increase in the number of anti-tank weapons it can carry.

Mr Tucker also disclosed that discussions were under way with the Pentagon to finalise a reciprocal agreement to fit the GEC cockpit to the US Marines' aircraft if the four-blade version is bought in Britain.

GEC claims choosing the Cobra Venom could create 14,000 long-term jobs in Britain because Bell had given guarantees that the GEC-equipped version would be the standard export version in future.

GKN's Westland has joined with a US partner, McDonnell Douglas, to bid with the Apache helicopter. British Aerospace would have a 20 per cent share in the Franco-German Tiger helicopter.

The race to win the contract is close, with the army said to prefer the Apache, and the Treasury wanting the Cobra.