Astor bidders face final test

MoD insists on panel presentation before allocating £750m defence procurement

The Ministry of Defence confirmed this week that it wants all three US bidders for the Airborne Stand Off Radar (Astor) to present their bids to a panel led by Secretary of State George Robertson – even though a provisional MoD choice has apparently been made.

The £750m Astor project will support up to 2,000 UK jobs, and give the RAF and Army an airborne radar to find hostile military vehicles several hundred kilometres away.

But Robertson’s request to bidders Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon gives them another hurdle to clear before the MoD can decide who wins this Government’s first big defence procurement.

The official MoD position remains that a decision will be made in the spring, but Britain’s involvement in the Kosovo war means dates for the meetings have yet to be fixed, the ministry said. There is also a meeting of Nato national armaments directors at the end of May, by when the UK apparently wants to make its choice.

The combination of last month’s in-camera meeting of the House of Commons Defence Committee to question Astor bidders, and Robertson’s new request for personal presentations, is `highly unusual’, one industry source said.

Northrop Grumman’s `Wizard’ bid for Astor is based on technology used in the US Air Force’s Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS ) aircraft, two of which are now flying over Kosovo.

Problems facing Nato planes in Kosovo include an inability to locate vehicles through thick cloud. The US’s Lacrosse radar mapping satellite can do this, but only crosses the area once every three hours. It is not yet clear if JSTARS has made targeting any easier.

Whichever system is picked for Astor, it will give combat aircraft immediate information on enemy vehicles’ movements, a major improvement over the current situation where there is a gap between targets being found and combat aircraft firing at them.