LONDON — A proposal to acquire a fleet of Boeing Wedgetail airborne early warning aircraft for the Royal Air Force was so far in advance of a rival Saab/Airbus offering that the British Ministry of Defence felt it would be a waste of time and money to hold a competition, according to Defence Procurement Minister Stuart Andrew.
“In considering the E-7 Wedgetail , there was such a clear distinction over any other options it was felt that running any type of competition would unnecessarily consume MoD and industry resources, whilst the gap between U.K. capability and the evolving threat would be expected to widen,” Andrew said in a letter to Parliamentary Defence Select Committee Chairman Julian Lewis MP.
The letter, dated Nov. 1, but only released Nov. 14, was the MoD’s response to concerns raised by Saab in a letter to Lewis in mid-October refuting claims by the ministry that marrying the Airbus A330 airframe with the Swedish company’s Erieye radar presented a significant risk.
The MoD announced in September that it intended to acquire the Wedgetail without a competition, subject to reaching a satisfactory deal with Boeing over the price.
The British are expected to purchase five Wedgetail aircraft. The RAF already has aircrew in Australia training on its close allies E-7s.
Australia, Turkey and South Korea have purchased the Wedgetail, although it is not in service with the U.S. military.
The defense committee recently quizzed top MoD officials over the intended purchase. In a bid to overcome concerns, committee members were also recently privy to a behind closed doors briefing by the department on the reasons for negotiating a single source deal with Boeing.
In his letter Andrew said the MoD had made up its mind to pursue the Wedgetail option at the start of the year but had spent the last few months reviewing the proposal and obtaining the approval of MoD and Treasury ministers before announcing the decision to Parliament.
Andrew said there were “fundamental issues with the Airbus/Saab solution that, in our view, make it incompatible with the pressing need,” to purchase a new platform.
The procurement minister detailed cost and integration issues that prompted the decision in favour of the US aircraft.
Saab UK was unavailable for comment.
In its mid-October letter to Lewis though the Swedish company refuted concerns that its plan to fit two Erieye radars to the A330 to overcome possible wing blanking issues was high risk.
The Saab letter said the A330 would be the “lowest risk” of any of the five platforms fitted with Erieye.
The Airbus/Saab solution was based on the use of A330 Voyager aircraft already available to the RAF for inflight refueling and transport duties as part of a long-term private finance initiative deal between Airbus and the MoD.
Fourteen A330s are available to the RAF with nine being used on a regular basis for military duties and the remainder on call as surge capacity when needed. In the meantime the aircraft are available for third-party charter.
It was the surge capacity aircraft the Europeans proposed to adapt for AEW duties, possibly replacing them later with new aircraft fitted a boom refueling capability. The current British A330s only have a probe and drogue capability.
Andrew said the AEW role is not compatible with refuelling and transport roles. The procurement minister said additional aircraft would have to be obtained incurring high procurement and operating costs higher than the 737.
Andrew’s letter said the MoD had no endorsed requirement for a boom and reopening the private finance initiative deal with Airbus would not be in the MoD or the taxpayers interest.
Industry had known for months the British were heading for a Wedgetail purchase but the announcement sparked new controversy, not least because it was the latest in a string of major single source deals the MoD had signed or were negotiating with foreign companies.
Some of those deals involved Boeing – most notably the procurement of nine Poseidon P-8 maritime patrol aircraft.
Boeing supplies the British military with Chinook and Apache helicopters and C-17 transporters, as well as the new 737 airliner-based Poseidon and Wedgetail aircraft. A major new purchase of Chinook helicopters for the British was recently approved by the U.S. Congress.
The RAF current airborne early warning and control aircraft fleet that Wedgetail will replace is Boeing’s 707-based Sentry E-3D platform. That system has been decaying in capability and availability due to years of under investment by the British.
It now needs urgent replacement. Along with the emerging threat from Russia and others the need for speed of delivery is in part prompted by the aging E-3Ds.
The MoD says it wants the first new AEW platform in service by 2022.
The U.S. company is seeking to head off any criticism over what some see as its under investment in the economy here with several initiatives to boost British jobs and capabilities.
Among those initiatives are a components manufacturing center recently opened in Sheffield, northern England. An £88 million airliner maintenance facility is being built at Gatwick airport and a support and training base for British and other nations P-8s is under construction at RAF Lossiemouth.
In addition Cambridge-based Marshall Aerospace and Defence is likely to undertake the work of modifying the 737 airliners to the AEW configuration.