With a wing in each corner: Fight to replace RAF transport aircraft highlights plight of contractors

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The Independent Online
ONE OF THE stranger commercial propaganda battles is reaching fever pitch. In one corner is a consortium that apparently includes Lucas Industries, the TI Group subsidiary, Dowty, and GEC-Marconi. In the other is a consortium that apparently includes . . . Lucas, Dowty and GEC-Marconi.

The object of the battle is to decide which aircraft the RAF should choose to replace its venerable Hercules transport aircraft. But behind this lies a struggle between the companies that want to keep Britain in an important European defence project and those that desperately need work now to preserve jobs.

In the mid-Sixties, the Ministry of Defence bought 66 Lockheed Hercules C-130Ks to act as the RAF's transporters. These aircraft are now reaching the end of their useful life, and the MoD has to decide whether to refurbish or replace them; and if so, with what.

Lockheed is offering a completely revamped version of the Hercules, the C-130J which, it says, meets all the MoD's requirements. The plane will be be available from 1996. Lockheed also stresses that 15 per cent of the work will go to 23 British companies, which have already put up pounds 60m of development money.

The rival is the Future Large Aircraft, a European joint venture that is still on the drawing board. Its supporters say that it can carry equipment, such as the Warrior armoured personnel carrier and small helicopters, that the Lockheed cannot.

The FLA lobby is led by British Aerospace, which believes it has a good chance of supplying the wings, and which does not have any work on the C-130J. It is backed up by Rolls- Royce and Shorts.

BAe has also produced a list of 60 companies which it says have a 'registered interest' in the FLA programme. They include Lucas, Dowty and GEC-Marconi, three of the biggest contributors to the C-130J.

The list is derived from companies that expressed interest after a meeting with potential suppliers earlier this year. However, some are irritated that they have been included. 'Of course we expressed an interest,' a manager of one of the companies said. 'We would, wouldn't we?'

In March, the House of Commons Defence Committee suggested a judgement of Solomon: the MoD should buy 30 C-130Js now to replace half the Hercules, and should look carefully at the FLA when the other half need replacing early in the next century. 'The cost penalty of running a mixed fleet may be a price worth paying,' it said.

This suited Lockheed but caused dismay at BAe. The British involvement in the FLA programme was, in any event, tenuous: the Government withdrew funding in 1989, and the UK now has observer status. BAe hoped that an RAF order would bring Britain back into the programme, guaranteeing UK companies a 20 per cent share of the work. If it built the wings, as it did for Airbus, BAe should win the lion's share of that work.

But if the RAF was not prepared to commit to FLAs, BAe feared it would lose any chance of winning the wings. It proposed a minimal refurbishment programme now, allowing the whole Hercules fleet to be replaced by FLAs when they become available.

A BAe spokesman says: 'We wound up the pace because we got intelligence that the MoD was trying to get a decision announced on 14 July, in a general defence statement in Parliament.'

BAe's advertising campaign, which FLA says will safeguard 7,500 jobs, was launched at the beginning of June. It runs against ads that have been appearing for several months from the C-130J UK Industrial Support Group, which says its aircraft will protect 3,500 jobs. With the Tornado programme running down, and the start of European Fighter Aircraft production receding towards the turn of the century, aerospace companies see a gaping hole opening up in front of them. That is why the companies that appear on both lists are unequivocal in supporting the C- 130J option, and are annoyed by the BAe campaign.

(Photograph omitted)