By Jamie Freed
AVALON, Australia (Reuters) – Boeing hopes Britain will decide this year on plans to buy E-7 Wedgetail early warning jets, an executive said, after talks last year sparked a row over competition in arms procurement.
Britain said in October it was in exclusive discussions with Boeing and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) about buying jets to replace its fleet of six ageing E-3D Sentry planes without holding a tender.
It did not give a timeline for the roughly $1 billion (752 million pounds) deal, but defence trade media reported that it wants the first jet in service by 2022.
“We hope to have a decision this year,” Scott Carpendale, Boeing Defence Australia’s director of commercial derivative aircraft, told Reuters.
“There are reasons why that is really important in terms of production availability and obviously the sooner they make a decision the sooner we make their aircraft. They are looking for that capability as soon as possible,” he said at the Australian International Airshow.
Britain’s decision to skip a formal tender, on the grounds that this was the least risky option, angered European rivals Airbus and Saab which had proposed a joint offering. It led to an unusual public rebuke from UK parliamentarians who had pushed for a competition.
It came as Britain prepares to take delivery of its first Boeing P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, also selected without a competition to fill an urgent capability gap. The early-warning and sub-hunting planes are both based on the 737 passenger jet.
In a letter late last year to the British parliament’s defence committee, Saab said the Ministry of Defence had ignored an offer of a detailed briefing on the Erieye sensor system that it proposed to place on Airbus A330 planes, indicating a lack of interest in a bid.
Defence sources said Airbus had also privately complained to the government.
Carpendale said Boeing and other key suppliers had made sure they had room in their schedules to support production and they were providing data on how Australia had operated Wedgetail, but Britain was still going through the approvals process.
Britain’s Ministry of Defence did not respond to a request for comment. An RAAF spokesman declined to comment.
Australia, a close ally of Britain, has six Wedgetails in operation and has developed advanced proprietary capabilities that it could potentially share depending on government agreements and U.S. export approvals, Carpendale said.
Early-warning systems like Wedgetail are designed to manage battles from the sky, tracking multiple airborne and maritime targets at the same time. They then use that information to direct other assets like fighter jets and warships.
Australia has deployed Wedgetail in Iraq and Syria.
RAAF Squadron Leader Martin Davies, who previously served on the E-3 in Britain’s Royal Air Force, said Wedgetail’s E-Scan radar was more advanced than the manual one on the E-3.
Saab has said it offered to “cloak” the A330 plane electronically to make it more survivable and has denied that the Airbus jet and Swedish radar involved more procurement risk.
(Additional reporting by Andrew MacAskill in London; Editing by Tim Hepher and Jan Harvey)