LONDON — Britain's Ministry of Defence has taken its first formal step with industry toward buying a mechanized infantry vehicle (MIV) for the British Army, but there are concerns the request for preliminary information released in the last few days is more aimed at making the case for a straight government-to-government purchase of the German-built Boxer vehicle rather than the first move toward holding a competition.
Release of the questionnaire, known as a preliminary market engagement, has eased industry fears they will be shut out of a chance to supply up to 900 of the eight-wheel drive armored vehicles, but executives here say the door remains firmly open for a G2G deal with the Germans.
"I welcome the release of the document but it is not a commitment to a competition. The British Army has been quietly pursuing a G2G deal involving Boxer for months, and if you were a cynic you might wonder if this is just an exercise in underpinning the business case for the German option rather than the first step to an open competition" said one industry executive who asked not to be named.
That's a sentiment echoed by other executives Defense News spoke to.
Contractors have until Nov 22 to respond to the market engagement document issued by the Defence Equipment & Support arm of the MoD.
A ministry spokesperson said the market engagement was an opportunity to "explore the options available to us."
"While no decision has been taken on the acquisition strategy for MIV, our approach is competitive procurement wherever possible," the statement said.
A decision on whether to go single-source or run a competition for the multibillion-pound contract is not expected to be made public until the second quarter of 2017.
Boxer is a joint German-Dutch program built by ARTEC, the Rheinmetall/Krauss Maffei Wegmann joint venture, for the two nations' armies.
The British military has visited the Dutch and German armies to run the rule over Boxer operations but the vehicle has not been formally evaluated since the last time the UK was looking for an eight-wheel drive vehicle as part of the FRES utility vehicle program eventually won in 2008 by General Dynamics with the Piranha 5.
That program was eventually cancelled after the company and the MoD failed to agree on contract terms.
The British were earlier part of the Boxer program but pulled out at the development stage, in part because the vehicle couldn't be deployed in the C-130 Hercules, the only airlifter available at the time
The Boxer opened its export account recently with an order from Lithuania for 88 machines.
ARTEC partner KMW did not respond to a request for a comment.
BAE, General Dynamics, Iveco, Lockheed Martin UK, Nexter, Patria and ST Kinetics could all be among the contractors considering bidding for the MIV if the opportunity arises.
Some of the potential bidders are already in talks to form partnerships.
Lockheed Martin told Defense News it is "in discussions with Patria on the MIV program. The two companies are already partnering to meet a Qatari requirement and unveiled a Lockheed Martin UK-made CT40 turret on a Patria armored modular vehicle at a recent defense show in Britain.
Lockheed Martin said the vehicle-turret combination was successfully demonstrated in Qatar earlier this year.
BAE Systems doesn't have an eight-wheel drive vehicle of its own but a spokesman said the company "continues to develop our relationships with leading 8x8 prime contractors to determine how we might contribute to their respective MIV solutions."
"We will consider whether to respond to the Preliminary Market Engagement notice," he said.
The spokesman said BAE "understands that it [the MIVprogram] has been funded and the requirement is maturing, but is not yet fixed."
A second industry executive said there were rumors that the case to purchase the Boxer had twice failed to get the approval of the MoD's Joint Requirement Oversight Committee.
The market-engagement document apparently requests companies responding to the questionnaire to supply operational data for their vehicle; suggesting that only in-service, off-the-shelf platforms will be considered.
The document also asks for details about how their vehicle can be reconfigured for different versions. That's left some executives to wonder whether their contender is being benchmarked against Boxer.
One of the unusual aspects of the Boxer is a modular design which allows the vehicle to be quickly reconfigured to match operational requirements.
It is expected a first batch of around 300 vehicles could be ordered in time to enter service around 2021 with as many as 800 to 900 eventually being purchased.
The vehicles, predominantly armored personnel carriers, but with others versions like command-and-control and ambulances also included, are required principally to help equip two new strike brigades being formed by the army.
The brigades, part of the Conservative Government's 2015 strategic defence and security review restructuring of the army by 2025, are designed to be able to deploy rapidly over long distances.
General Dynamics is already building 589 tracked Ajax reconnaissance vehicles and other variants in a £3.5 billion production deal awarded in 2014.
Two national newspapers here have run stories in the last few days highlighting the British interest in doing a deal with Germany and raising concerns that the government here could pay heavily over the odds by not running a competition.
Industry executives here said that aside from being more expensive, the Germans would be unable to match the jobs and UK work content of their rivals. That, they said, needs to be an important consideration for a post-Brexit defense industrial strategy.
Privately, German executives at armored vehicle briefings given earlier this month by Rheinmetall and KMW said they reckoned that with local assembly, vehicle testing and some component supply, at least 50 percent of added value would be located in the UK.
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.