The Ministry of Defence last week received ‘best and final offers’ from the three US prime contractors bidding for the £732m Airborne Stand Off Radar (Astor) project.
At stake is the long-term future for thousands of jobs, and the chance at last for Britain to get a sophisticated military radar system which has been the subject of much talk, but little action, since the 1980s.
Astor will be a complex surveillance system which can look several hundred kilometres into enemy territory to identify and track hostile vehicles. It will meet the needs of the RAF and British Army for an airborne ground surveillance system.
The Astor aircraft, a modified business jet, will carry a sophisticated combined synthetic aperture and moving target indicator radar, which will be data-linked to army ground stations. Project funding could be up to £732m for four or five aircraft, 11 ground stations and a service package of up to 10 years.
Trying to discern the battle plans way behind enemy lines is something the rival bidders have been attempting to practise on each other, but without the benefit of radar. One bidder, Los Angeles-based defence giant Northrop Grumman, has proved particularly difficult to read.
After a competitive tender from which Northrop Grumman was eliminated, two parallel project definition contracts were awarded to the rival camps of prime contractors Lockheed Martin and Raytheon in February 1995.
Each put in their final bids exactly a year ago. But at the last minute, Northrop Grumman reappeared to put in an unsolicited bid with what appeared to be an improved radar system. Rumour has it that it re-entered the contest because of intervention ‘at the highest level’ extending all the way to Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. The basis for such rumours is that the US government is committed to developing an expensive surveillance radar of its own with Northrop Grumman and is keen to find a wider market for the system. If Northrop Grumman were to get in on the Astor act, then the US Air Force could seek a pay-off in terms of sales to the UK, Europe and the Middle East.
Conspiracy theorists will note that Northrop Grumman’s cause appears to have been helped by an apparent flexibility by the MoD on the in-service-date for the Astor system, and the long delays in the timetable for evaluating the bids. Northrop originally thought it would be too late to meet the MoD’s timescale. ‘We need more time,’ a Northrop insider admitted last December. But the in-service date of 2003 is looking increasingly flexible. ‘We’ve said previously that we would review the in-service date when the decision was made on development and production,’ an MoD spokesman said.
Such delays will boost Northrop Grumman’s hopes as it continues to work on the USmilitary radar project, known as Radar Technology Insertion Programme (RTIP), for the proposed $1.3bn US Air Force Joint ‘Stars’ surveillance aircraft.
On this project, Northrop Grumman is collaborating with its arch-rival for the Astor contract, Raytheon, having resolved a dispute over rights to RTIP technology. Northrop Grumman has overall responsibility for the radar, while sharing the antenna development with Raytheon.
In parallel with Northrop Grumman’s Astor bid, the US Defence Department is offering RTIP technology to Britain through a proposed cooperative development programme. In an uncompromising hard-sell, the Pentagon seems to be warning that Britain could gain access to RTIP technology by signing up now but may lose out if it prevaricates.
While RTIP is central to Northrop Grumman’s Astor bid, it is also being offered as a potential upgrade to Lockheed Martin’s and Raytheon’s Astor rival bids an offer which has been met with scepticism by both parties, which remain unimpressed by the supposed superiority of the Northrop Grumman bid. ‘A lot of the algorithms that are being offered by Northrop Grumman are algorithms we can do now,’ said a Lockheed Martin executive, adding that his company’s bid offers technology ‘similar to RTIP’.
If Britain opts for RTIP on Northrop Grumman’s bid, this would mean ‘almost certainly a delay in the programme and a fundamental change,’ one rival warned.
For UK industry, more than 2,000 jobs are likely to be secured or created, while the business among sub-contractors looks assured irrespective of which company wins, as many are common to more than one bidder. Export orders, too, could create a further 4,000 jobs, according to the most optimistic estimates.
Design authority if Lockheed Martin wins will rest in Britain, as it is using the British-developed radar which Racal, and predecessors, have been working on for 15 years.
Raytheon is promising ‘nearly 70%’ UK content, with design authority staying with the UK.
Northrop Grumman says major sub-contractors British Aerospace and CDC would be qualified as ‘sister design authorities,’ though Northrop is clearly in the driving seat in the US.
The result will be known in the spring unless the project is subject to yet further delays.