RAF refuses to take sides in £13bn battle

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The Independent Online

Britain's top military commander in the Iraq war said yesterday that the RAF was "neutral" in the battle between Boeing and Airbus for a £13bn midair refuelling contract.

Air Chief Marshal Brian Burridge, Commander in Chief of Headquarters Strike Command at the RAF, said that what mattered was value for money over the 27-year life of the contract.

The Ministry of Defence is due to decide next month on a replacement for its ageing fleet of VC10 and TriStar refuelling tankers. The choice is between a second-hand fleet of Boeing 767 aircraft proposed by the Tanker Team consortium and a fleet of new and used Airbus A330s put forward by the rival Air Tanker grouping. "What really matters is what is on the end of the hose and the end of the boom," said Air Chief Marshal Burridge. "The airframe doesn't matter. We are neutral from an operational standpoint," he said at a breakfast seminar at the CBI conference.

He added that whichever consortium won the contract, the biggest ever awarded under the Private Finance Initiative, it had to be value for money. "The consortia are well aware of that."

This reinforces how crucial jobs and industrial considerations will be in the Government's final decision, which is expected to be made by a Cabinet committee chaired by Tony Blair.

Tanker Team says its proposals would safeguard more than 5,000 UK jobs but Air Tanker says it will safeguard or create 7,500 because an order for Airbus would bring work to north Wales where the wings of the A330 are made.

President Bush is expected to lobby on behalf of the Boeing consortium when his state visit to Britain begins today. The US Air Force has already selected brand new Boeing 767s to provide the backbone of its tanker refuelling fleet and the US manufacturer is arguing strongly that there would be a big advantage in British and American forces having the same kit. Air Chief Marshal Burridge said that the UK and US defence forces had already shown their ability to operate joint refuelling missions during the recent Gulf conflict.