AWACS vs. Nimrod: British government faces no-win decision. Air Force wants US model, but public wants local product

The sharp rise of economic nationalism in Britain over the past year is complicating a critical strategic decision that the British government will make this week. Should it buy American AWACS and satisfy the Ministry of Defense and the Royal Air Force?

Or should it instead bow to political pressure at home by opting for Nimrod, the British version, and mute the charge that it is selling British high technology down the river.

That is the unenviable strategic and political decision the British Government will make tomorrow to determine which airborne early warning radar system to choose.

Already the two opposition parties, Labour and the Social Democrat-Liberal alliance, are backing the British option. They have the support of some 78 Conservative members of Parliament who are threatening to rebel should the government decision go against Nimrod.

All the indications are that the Thatcher government has decided that AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) is not only a proven system, but a technically superior one as well. Although it seems the government will tough it out in defending that choice, the political going will be rough.

Britain's industrial decline is making politicians and the public increasingly sensitive about American economic and military domination.

There was an uneasy feeling among Britons when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher granted a request from the United States to allow US planes, based in Britain, to be used in the bombing of Libya in April.

The malaise also surfaced more stridently at the beginning of the year over the Westland controversy when Sikorsky-Fiat, a largely American dominated group, won out against a rival European bid with British participation to secure a minority holding in the ailing Westland helicopter company.

Westland is the sole surviving helicopter company in Britain, and the prospect of Americans gaining a foothold in the company only reinforced anxieties about US economic and military domination.

The controversy was scarcely over before the British government was obliged to back down under political pressure on takeover attempts in the British automobile industry by Ford and General Motors.

A decision to go for the Boeing Aerospace Company's AWACS, even though the system has a proven track record, is bound to be controversial.

Nearly 1 billion ($1.4 billion) of British taxpayers' money has gone into Nimrod since it was pushed by the then-Labour government back in 1977 to defend Britain from a surprise supersonic attack.

Controversy over Nimrod stems from the fact that it has been troubled by problems over the years that have put it well over budget and three years behind schedule.

Defense Ministry impatience surfaced in February when the British General Electric Company (GEC), Europe's largest avionics industry, was given six months in which to eliminate the system's bugs. At the same time, outside bids were invited.

Since then, GEC has been confident that it passed the test, particularly in regard to its upgrading of the radar system, which has been the principal source of trouble.

But those involved in the final decisionmaking do not seem to be sufficiently reassured.

GEC has pinned much of its hopes on national pride. It took out full-page newspaper advertisements depicting both Boeing's AWACS and GEC's Nimrods, saying ``both will defend Britain, only one will defend British industry.''

The ad charges that 2,500 high-tech jobs in Britain are at stake, and that GEC offers the only airborne early warning capability outside the US. A victory for Boeing, however, would not necessarily translate into a net loss of jobs since Boeing has pledged subcontracting work to three British electronics firms - Plessey, Racal, Ferranti.

The dispute has again renewed the debate initiated during the Westland controversy by former Defense Minister Michael Heseltine that Britain stands to become little more than an assembly ground for American high tech. But on this particular score, Mr. Heseltine is not a Nimrod backer.

One diplomatic source fears that, industrially, Britain is too often impeded by ``a parochial patriotism'' that makes it score political points at the expense of economically sound strategies.

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