Portillo confirms Westland victory

Choice of Rolls-Royce engines softens blow of pounds 2.5bn Army order for Anglo-American Apache attack helicopters
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JOHN RENTOUL

and RUSSELL HOTTEN

Michael Portillo, Secretary of State for Defence, yesterday sought to soften the impact of picking the Anglo-American Apache attack helicopter over European rivals by choosing British engines and emphasising the high British content in the new order.

He announced the award of the pounds 2.5bn contract to a consortium of McDonnell Douglas and Westland, as expected, but with Rolls-Royce engines rather than those preferred by the Army.

In his Commons debut in his new job, he also announced a decision to ask the US government for agreement to acquire Tomahawk cruise missiles.

Mr Portillo said the Apache, although more expensive than rival bids, had "demonstrated its value with the US Army", particularly in the Gulf war.

But he did not deny that the need to protect British jobs had been a factor. "We are ordering a helicopter built by Westland, powered by Rolls- Royce, and equipped with missiles supplied by Shorts [the Belfast company]. British industry will do at least 50 per cent of the work on the Apaches we buy," he said, claiming the order would safeguard some 3,000 jobs a year.

Asked by Sir Kenneth Carlisle, Tory MP for Lincoln, whether the Army had requested T700 engines made by GE-Alstrom, Mr Portillo said he had taken into account "industrial implications", including jobs, as well as Army considerations.

Asked later if this contradicted the Government's commitment to the free market, he said: "I am a British patriot, and I want to see our armed forces doing the good job that they do and having the equipment to do it. I also wish to see British people in work, and I want to see British companies in the forefront of technology."

Mr Portillo also said Tomahawk would be "a significant addition to our military capability", although the number of missiles to be acquired was secret. The cruise missile will be armed with conventional warheads.

David Clark, Labour's defence spokesman, said he supported the decision but asked why the original need for more than 100 helicopters had been reduced to 67. Mr Portillo replied that he was convinced the Apache could do the job in these numbers because "it has a very good survivability rate".

Westland greeted the victory with large newsflash posters declaring "Apache team wins". Richard Case, managing director, said: "It means job stability and now we can go forward as one of the world's strengths in helicopter manufacture."

Westland, which will assemble the Apache from parts shipped over by McDonnell Douglas, will deliver the helicopters over seven years, with the first due in 1998.

The decision was a big blow to the two other UK contenders, British Aerospace and GEC, which had fought a long and sometimes hostile four- year battle for the contract.

BAe bitterly attacked the Government's choice, warning of a loss of up to 500 highly skilled jobs and "serious consequences'' for the UK's long- term future in defence projects.

John Weston, chairman of BAe defence, said the decision would "close the UK out of the very substantial export market for attack helicopters".

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