Civil servants at the Ministry of Defence have told the Independent that they are "outraged'' by the preference shown by ministers for the US-based Boeing Chinook helicopter which could damage the Westland company's hopes of winning up to £3bn in worldwide orders for its utility EH101 helicopter.
Some MPs last night warned it would be a body blow to the company and seriously damage the Tories' chances of holding on to seats in the West Country at the next election.
Senior defence sources confirmed that they were supporting the RAF preference for the Chinook, which Boeing has been producing for 30 years. Although a final decision has yet to be reached, Westland is fighting to secure part of the order.
A ministerial source said the MoD would not allow the helicopter order to be a repeat of the battle over that for Hercules transport aircraft in December, when defence ministers were forced into a compromise by Michael Heseltine, the President of the Board of Trade.
Mr Heseltine intervened and persuaded Cabinet colleagues to keep open the option of ordering a European machine, the Future Large Aircraft, to replace part of the RAF's fleet of Hercules heavy-lift transport aircraft so technology and jobs could be protected.
The RAF is still stinging from that decision. "This is not going to be like the FLA. It is going to be decided entirely on military need for the RAF. Political considerations will not come into it,'' a ministerial source said.
There were echoes of the battle over the future of Westland in 1986, when Mr Heseltine, then Secretary of State for Defence, walked out of the Cabinet to protect Britain's helicopter capacity. Industry sources said the future of the company was not now at risk, but it is almost certain the President of the Board of Trade will be urged to fight again for the company and jobs next month when the order is due to go to a Cabinet committee.
After Mr Heseltine's rearguard action, Malcolm Rifkind, the Secretary of State for Defence, in a partial victory, announced that the RAF would order 25 of the US-built aircraft, an updated version of the Hercules, called the C130J, and would leave open the option of ordering 40 to 50 FLAs.
Westland Helicopters last night made it clear it was determined to put up a ferocious fight for the helicopter order, which it hopes could bring up to 200 sales worldwide of the type being offered to the RAF.
Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader and MP for Yeovil, where the company is based, said: "If this is true, it is a betrayal of a specific promise by the Secretary of State for Defence. It will be a body blow to the aerospace industry and it will undermine the capacity to sell first-class helicopters on world markets."
The MoD denied a final decision had been reached. The need for the contract was established in 1987 to provide the RAF with a medium-lift helicopter to transport small squads of men and light equipment, such as Land Rovers in rapid deployment forces. TheMoD narrowed bidders down to the Chinook and the EH101, although it admitted they were "like apples and pears".
Roger Freeman, minister for defence procurement, said the MoD had to take into account the differing qualities and capabilities of both helicopters but also "the discounted whole life costs and the results of a combined operational effectiveness and investment appraisal".