Britain's government is nearing a decision to buy four to six surveillance planes built by U.S. aerospace giant Boeing, sources familiar with the plans said Thursday — a move that could stir a growing debate over U.K. and European defense jobs.
The contract to replace its six aging E-3D Sentry airborne early warning (AWACS) planes with a fleet of Boeing E-7 Wedgetail jets would, if confirmed, be worth over $1 billion.
But the decision, which could be announced in coming weeks, is likely to anger some U.K. lawmakers who have called for a full competition, and may also spark formal protests by European defense companies keen for the business.
Airbus, which is said to be teaming up with Sweden's Saab to offer an alternative, is anxious to try to prevent the deal being awarded without a competition and does not rule out mounting a legal challenge, a person close to the matter said.
A spokesman for Britain's defense ministry said, "We tender contracts competitively wherever appropriate. It is too early to comment further at this time." Boeing and Airbus had no immediate comment.
The decision over whether to order the equipment from the United States or to look to continental Europe reflects broader divisions over Britain's external relations after it leaves the European Union, with thousands of high-tech jobs at stake.
U.S. President Donald Trump, whose support is vital as Britain seeks to forge new trade deals outside the European Union, extolled the benefits of buying from U.S. arms firms including Boeing after a NATO summit on Thursday.
But Airbus, which recently clashed with the U.K. government over delays in negotiating Brexit, is expected to defend a European solution based on its A330 jetliner and Saab's Erieye radar and will argue Boeing trade actions put U.K. jobs at risk.
"It would mean the U.K. is no longer a trustworthy place to do business," a person close to the company said.
The chairman of the British parliament's defense committee this month posted a letter dated June 26 to the procurement minister, arguing that open competition would save money.
Boeing's supporters say the E-7A planes — based on the 737 jetliner and already in use by Australia, South Korea and Turkey — would speed delivery to the UK military, which had deferred purchases to devote resources to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Boeing is willing to offer U.K. firms a significant share of work on the program, one of the sources said. It would fly 737 jetliners to the U.K. and allow firms there to do work needed to turn them into airborne surveillance and command assets.