Westland may face inquiry on Saudi contract

Rosie Waterhouse
Friday 07 August 1992 23:02 BST

THE MINISTRY of Defence and Westland Helicopters invited British defence companies to tender for a dollars 5bn ( pounds 2.7bn) export contract, knowing certain weapons in the package would be banned by American arms export controls.

The proposed contract was to arm a consignment of 88 battlefield attack helicopters, destined for the Middle East, with an integrated weapons system including anti-tank missiles and rockets.

Westland denies that the planned contract, still being negotiated with Saudi Arabia, was part of a conspiracy between British and American defence companies to circumvent US arms export restrictions. It says the contract was part of a British government-

negotiated order, the Yamamah programme, to sell defence equipment worth dollars 42bn ( pounds 22.5bn) to Saudi Arabia over 20 years.

There is no suggestion that what Westland and the MoD proposed was illegal under UK law. But if American companies conspired to avoid US law that would be in breach of the US Arms Export Control Act.

Westland's admission that the weapons the customer could select included US-made or designed anti-tank missiles could lead to a US Congress inquiry. Lee Hamilton, chairman of the influential European and Middle East sub-committee of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said Congress could question the companies to establish whether they did propose the sale and also whether the use of British companies was intended to circumvent US law.

Since the early 1980s Congress has tried to block the export of sophisticated weapons to the Middle East to prevent proliferation and to maintain the balance of power.

Mr Hamilton said: 'If the allegations you are making are true, that US companies were seeking to circumvent US law, that's a very serious departure.'

The helicopter to be 'weaponised' was the Black Hawk, also called the WS-70, which Westland makes under licence from Sikorsky, an American company. Westland says the potential customers were Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The project to arm the Black Hawk was uncovered when an investigation by the Independent found that highly secret negotiations took place between the MoD, Westland, at least six other UK companies and several US companies from 1988 to 1991. Westland claims the banned anti- tank missiles would have been fitted only if and when the US restrictions were lifted.

UK companies involved in negotiations included British Aerospace and Royal Ordnance, which were invited to supply weapons, and British Manufacture and Research Company (BMARC), a subsidiary of the munitions manufacturer Astra, which was to make and fit some of the weapons.

Jonathan Aitken, Minister of Defence Procurement, was a BMARC director from September 1988 to mid-1990, but the MoD said he had had nothing to do with the helicopter project.

Westland's admissions could influence a dollars 130m ( pounds 69.5m) Washington lawsuit in which Westland, Sikorsky and its parent company, United Technology Corporation, are accused of a conspiracy to supply armed Black Hawks, circumventing export controls.

Westland denial, page 4

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in