In a policy turnaround, defence secretary George Robertson last week invited proposals from the European consortium planning to build the Future Large Aircraft. But he has not ruled out seeking cheaper US bids for an alternative plane.
The previous Government, and elements in the RAF, were sceptical about the £14bn pan-European project.
The UK has now endorsed the European staff requirement for the aircraft and the statement of principles governing the project’s commercial management by the Airbus Military Company.
Robertson said Britain would be ‘encouraging our partners to join with us in seeking bids from other aircraft manufacturers’.
He said: ‘There is a need to maintain competitive pressure in order to obtain best value for money.’
In practice this means Britain will request proposals from Lockheed Martin on the C-130J Hercules and from McDonnell Douglas on the C-17. Two years ago the RAF ordered 25 C-130Js. This programme is now running over a year late.
The UK’s partners in AMC are France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Turkey, with Belgium and Portugal as observers. AMC will now present a detailed technical and financial FLA proposal on the basis of the European staff requirement.
Sir Dick Evans, British Aerospace chief executive, said the decision was ‘very good news for BAe, for Rolls-Royce, Shorts and the other British companies that will benefit from the programme’.
Evans said the RAF might require 40 or 50 FLAs, though earlier this year there were reports that the number might be halved.
The MoD said the request for proposals does not imply any formal commitment to the FLA.