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Don't freeze UK defence sector out of Sentry contract, ministers warned

Alan Tovey
The RAF's fleet of early warning radar aircraft have been worn out by the heavy demands on them - RAF

A battle is brewing between defence companies and government over upgrading or replacing the RAF’s fleet of airborne early warning “Sentry” jets.

The E-3D Awacs aircraft are used to detect enemy aircraft and guide fighters to intercept them. The ones currently in service were built by Boeing and first began protecting Britain’s skies in the Nineties. 

With the heavy demands placed on them the RAF’s Sentries are worn out, with maintenance on the ageing aircraft becoming prohibitively expensive. It has been argued that rather than spend an estimated £2bn on ­upgrades, it would be cheaper to replace them in the long term. 

However, fears are growing that a contract for new aircraft will be handed to US defence giant Boeing without a competitive process, freezing out companies in the UK. 

RAF Sentry jets at RAF Waddington Credit: SAC Andy Stevens/RAF

This could be the latest in a series of multi-billion arms contracts handed to US and other foreign manufacturers at the expensive of companies in the UK. 

Recent examples include the MoD’s agreements with Boeing to buy P-8 Poseidon maritime spyplanes and Apache attack helicopters. Last month MPs heard the MoD had awarded a £4.4bn deal to a German-led consortium for new armoured vehicles for the Army without a full competition.    

MP Madeleine Moon, a member of the defence select committee, has called for any Sentry contract to be bid for in an “open and transparent” way.

She said: “Buying from Boeing forgets the importance of British defence jobs and maintaining this country’s defence industry’s capabilities.

“By buying off the shelf without an open competition how will we know we will be getting not only the best deal but also the best equipment?” 

Britain is buying new Apache helicopters from Boeing  Credit: Boeing

The MP also claimed Boeing has a "poor record" in the UK for “offsetting” defence deals. Offsetting is the process where companies agree to build or maintain equipment in the country which is buying it, keeping some of the value of a defence order within the economy making the purchases.

Boeing P-8 maritime spyplane was ordered by the UK without competition

Defence industry insiders say that UK and European companies - and even US groups with a UK footprint - are preparing for battle with Whitehall to have an open competition held over renewing the Sentry fleet.

“It’s looking like the P-8 Poseidon all over again,” said one industry source. “We’re ready to fight to have a chance to take part.”

Companies likely to offer their version of the Sentry include Airbus, using a design based on it A330 airliner whose wings are made in company’s factory in North Wales. Sweden’s SAAB could also be a contender. Rival bids are likely to pledge to offset as much work in the UK with subcontractors as they can to secure the deal.

Answering parliamentary questions on Sentry, Guto Bebb, defence procurement minister, said: “No decision has been made with regard to the future delivery of the UK’s airborne warning and control capabilities, although a range of options are being explored.”