Westland is favoured for pounds 2.5bn helicopter order

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The Independent Online
Cabinet ministers will today decide whether to accept a Ministry of Defence recommendation that the pounds 2.5bn order for 91 new Army helicopters should be awarded to an Anglo-American consortium led by McDonnell Douglas and Westland.

The contract has been at the centre of one of the most intensive, and at times vicious, lobbying operations ever seen in Whitehall with three of Britain's best-known companies fighting for the order.

Michael Portillo, the Secretary of State for Defence, is expected to confirm his predecessor Malcolm Rifkind's endorsement of what ministers see as the irresistible military case for the consortium's Apache helicopter.

The one factor that could delay approval by the full Cabinet today is ministerial concern to ensure an adequate share of the work generated by the contract goes to British industry.

The contract has been subject to some of the fiercest international lobbying seen in defence circles for several years and a decision to buy the Apache would be a severe blow to British Aerospace which has been fighting for the alternative Tiger, produced jointly with the French and Germans.The MoD has also rejected the GEC-Bell Cobra Venom.

Westland is said by MPs to have been especially effective in its lobbying - encouraging sub-contractors to approach MPs to underline the importance of the contract. Although a decision to buy the Apache will disappoint some MPs, the Westland lobbying operation may help to reduce the danger of a full-scale row within the Tory party.

A source at Westland said: "What we are hearing from London chimes with what we have been hearing from contacts in Washington. It is looking very good for us, but I know of no official decisions being made.''

GEC is believed to have been lobbying hard to get the decision delayed until after the summer so it could have more time to work on its tender. The company made a last-minute attempt to boost its bid by offering a revamped helicopter.

Although the contract is not a life-or-death issue for any company, BAe has the most to lose from rejection. Yesterday the company acknowledged that Westland was being tipped as the favourite, but said it had not been told who had won.

BAe warned that failure to back Tiger would put many highly skilled jobs at risk. The company's role on the missile system for Tiger would end and threaten its position at the centre of some crucial developments in defence technology.

The French government has put great pressure on the UK to choose Tiger, and hinted Britain could be ostracised from future joint European defence procurements decisions.

A BAe spokeswoman said Westland's role in the Apache project was as an assembly plant. "It gets no technological benefits, and would have no access to work on any export orders won by McDonnell Douglas."

Whitehall lobbying, page 2