The news comes as the Ministry of Defence agonises over its equipment budget. The decision to reprieve four army regiments and increase army manpower by 3,000 will cost pounds 80m a year, to be found from within the existing defence budget.
Defence sources yesterday said that reported plans to cut a squadron of Tornado F3 fighter aircraft or not to proceed with the Royal Navy's pounds 170m 'Landing Platform Helicopter' - a ship designed to transport commandos, were not directly linked with the decision on army manpower.
To make the defence budget fit available resources, about 1,000 'alternative assumptions' are considered every year. One current possibility involves disbanding one of the seven Tornado F3 squadrons and placing the aircraft in reserve. Alternatively, the Landing Platform Helicopter, due in service in 1997, for which Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering and Swan Hunter are tendering, could be cancelled.
The attack helicopter announcement, overshadowed by news of the reprieve for army infantry regiments, represents belated recognition of a revolution in air- land warfare. The helicopter combines the mobility of the aircraft with a ground system's ability to use cover - hovering behind trees or the folds of the ground. But the British government has been slower to accept this revolution than the Americans or the Russians.
The first US Apache attack helicopter flew in 1975; the first Russian Mi-24 Hind in 1972. As early as the 1930s, there were designs for 'flying tanks', including a Russian light tank with bi-plane wings which fell off after it landed, tracks spinning. During the 1991 Gulf war, the US 101st Airborne Division launched the largest airmobile assault in history, with more than 300 attack helicopters.
On Wednesday, Jonathan Aitken, Defence Procurement Minister, announced that the Government would order a complete attack helicopter weapons system to replace the Lynx in the anti-armour role. The contract for the attack helicopter, which will be purely an attack weapon and will not carry troops, will be issued in 1995. Tenders will be assessed on the basis of operational effectiveness, support costs, risk, and, above all, cost- effectiveness.
The 4,000-page invitation to tender also requires manufacturers to consider equipping their helicopter with the Shorts Starstreak anti-aircraft missile, so it can shoot down other helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.
The Army on the ground will be equipped with Starstreak, and by arming helicopters with a similar missile the MoD hopes to simplify the ammunition supply chain.
Companies invited to tender are British Aerospace and Eurocopter with the Franco-German Tiger attack helicopter; Westlands and McDonnell Douglas with the AH-64 Apache; GEC and Bell Textron with the Cobra Super Venom; Italy's Agusta with the A-129 Mongoose; and Boeing/Sikorsky with the Comanche.
In each case, one company will be a candidate for prime contractor, responsible for delivering the 100 aircraft, plus back-up, simulators and a training package. Industry sources indicate the overall value of the initial order is about pounds 2bn.
Russia's Kamov, builder of the world's first anti-helicopter helicopter, the Hokum, has not been invited to tender.
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