Britain goes with AWACS, raises ire

The British government has unequivocally come down on the side of the American Boeing AWACS as its choice for Britain's early warning radar system. The loser is the British challenger, Nimrod, which has been plagued by technical problems ever since Britain moved, in 1977, to have its own AEW (advanced early warning) radar system.

Predictably, the House of Commons was in an uproar Thursday when it was officially announced that the Boeing AWACS had won out. Members of Parliament are furious that millions of pounds of British taxpayers' money have gone down the drain. They are also angry that the government seems to have turned its back on British technology.

Much the same sensitivities came into play when the ailing Westland helicopter company turned to a largely American consortium to bail it out of financial difficulties earlier this year.

One diplomatic source suggests that Defense Secretary George Younger had been unwise in his bid to appear even handed by arguing that both AWACS and Nimrod systems worked. This, he cautions, could only fuel the chauvinistic argument that Nimrod, as the British version, should have been given the benefit of the doubt.

Although the government was aware of the political fallout in going for the American option, it was convinced, as was the Royal Air Force and the Ministry of Defense, that AWACS was unquestionably the better choice. AWACS has had a proven track record, while Nimrod has been plagued by severe and time-consuming technical difficulties, and time is still needed to correct its faults.

But Mrs. Thatcher has been getting increasingly impatient with the time GEC has taken to get Nimrod right. In February, GEC was given six months to get do so. At the same time, tenders were invited from outside competitors. In the end, it became a straight choice between Boeing and GEC.

Speaking to a noisy House of Commons, Mr. Younger conceded that GEC had made progress since February. But he said recent flight trials had not measured up well enough. It was the unanimous view of his military and scientific experts, he said, that the required performance was unlikely to be achieved before the 1990s ``at the earliest, if then.''

Although Mr. Younger gave every indication that Boeing was superior with a proven track record, Denzil Davies, the man who would be Defense Secretary in any future Labour government deplored the decision. He said it was both sad and bad rendering a heavy blow to Britain's industrial base.

For Davies it was yet another reminder of Britain ceasing to be a prime contractor in technology, and becoming instead a subcontractor for making component parts for other countries.

The government insists that this is a misreading of the situation because of Boeing's offset contract. It will mean for every $140 spent by Boeing on the E-3A, $180 will be spent on work for British companies.

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