Airbus is promising Britain’s first new helicopter factory in decades, bringing hundreds of new jobs and billions of pounds of exports if the Ministry of Defence chooses it to build a new generation of helicopters to replace the UK’s ageing fleet of Pumas.
The European aerospace company is competing with the Italian group Leonardo, formerly AgustaWestland, and the American multinational Lockheed Martin to win a £1.1 billion deal to build at least 25 Puma replacements.
Airbus is offering the MoD a vision of a multi-decade defence industrial strategy. It says that if it wins the tender it will build a new helicopter production line at Broughton, north Wales, where it makes wings for all Airbus commercial aircraft types. Broughton is the largest centre for the 12,000 people that are employed by Airbus UK across the aerospace, defence and space sectors.
The group is also promising that Broughton would become the sole Airbus site for production of H175M military helicopters around the world, taking work away from its existing helicopter manufacturing site at Marignane in the south of France.
Airbus is putting forward the H175M, capable of flying 19 personnel with a 600-mile and six-hour range.
At the Paris Air Show today Airbus will parade a Union Jack-emblazoned military version of its H175 helicopter, which is used in the British civil market by the oil and gas industry, corporates, wealthy private individuals and search and rescue.
Leonardo is pitching to build its AW149 to replace the Puma at its Yeovil factory. Lockheed Martin, one of the world’s largest aerospace companies, is offering its Black Hawk helicopter, a mainstay of the American military, but it has made no commitment to assemble them in the UK.
The delayed tendering process could move to preferred bidder status as early as the DSEI arms fair in London in September.
Airbus says that there is demand for 500 mid-sized military support helicopters across Europe, the Middle East and Far East with countries such as Norway at the head of the queue.
Lenny Brown, head of Airbus UK helicopters, said that that represented an export market that could be worth between £13 billion and £20 billion to Britain. “We will build a production line in Broughton, only build the H175M in Broughton and only export the H175M from Broughton,” he said.
In a rare example of co-operation between two of the giants of world aerospace, Airbus is co-bidding with Boeing, which will provide aircraft maintenance and crew training for the H175M.
Last year Guillaume Faury, chief executive of Airbus, provided a boost to the UK’s aerospace industry by saying that the business had “turned the page” on its opposition to Brexit and planned to keep wing production in Wales. There had been fears that it could pull out of Britain.
Airbus will face stiff competition from Leonardo, which employs 3,000 people in Yeovil. It has built and supports more than a hundred AW101 Merlin and AW159 Wildcat helicopters for the UK military and says that Yeovil has export orders for both aircraft with unnamed Middle Eastern and North African customers.
Leonardo is offering its AW149, manufactured in Italy and operational or on order with Egypt, Thailand and Poland. Like Airbus it says that global demand for such military helicopters is high.
With its incumbency in the UK, Leonardo claims to be the low-cost, low-risk, rapid-deliverability option for the MoD. Adam Clarke, managing director of Leonardo Helicopters UK, said: “The AW149 will be manufactured in and exported from the UK. We are committed to delivering economic and societal benefits to the UK.”