US defence groups will be able to bid for a £1bn-plus aircraft contract after complaining to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) that they were being excluded.
MoD officials met last year with major European players, including Thales, EADS and BAE Systems, over plans for a new wave of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). These have been used in Iraq and Afghanistan for surveillance and combat. US firms were not invited to the presentation and several groups, including Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, have contacted the MoD to complain that this anti-competitive.
Officials have since assured them they will be free to bid for the contract. The MoD will assess later this year whether or not to proceed with the project, and invitations to bid could be a year away.
"The MoD Operational Unmanned Air Systems programme is unfunded and there are no plans to release any requests for proposals to industry," said an MoD spokesman. "Should the programme progress, then we would consider all affordable options including those from US companies."
Cobham, Rolls-Royce and QinetiQ are also expected to be interested if and when the contract for UAVs materialises.