Italian helicopter maker Leonardo has said it could cancel a planned £ 1bn investment in British manufacturing if the government does not choose it to replace the Royal Air Force’s Puma fleet.
The Defense Ministry announced in the spring that it wanted to replace the Puma and possibly three other models. The RAF has used the Puma since the 1970s, and improved versions were widely used to transport troops in wars such as the Falklands, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Leonardo is competing with Airbus, the European aerospace conglomerate, to build a new mid-size helicopter by around 2025. The Italian company has the UK’s only helicopter plant in Yeovil, Somerset, employing 3,000 workers, but Airbus this week pledged to create 400 jobs in a new helicopter production line at its Broughton plant , in North Wales, if he wins the government contract.
However, Nick Whitney, managing director of Leonardo Helicopters UK, said his company’s existing facility would be able to deliver its AW149 planes faster and that the contract would unlock previously unreported foreign direct investment from the manufacturer based in Rome – including over £ 500million to Yeovil.
“If the UK government does not trust the domestic rotary wing company in the UK, it has to ask why our parent company should invest in the same volumes,” he told The Guardian. He was speaking at Defense and Security Equipment International, a controversial gun fair held in London.
The Yeovil factory is one of the oldest aerospace facilities in the UK, dating back to 1915 when the Westland Aircraft Works created planes to fight in WWI. The fate of the factory has long been politically sensitive. In 1986, it was the subject of a power struggle between then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and his Defense Secretary Michael Heseltine over whether to be sold to European buyers or Americans.
Any threat to the Yeovil plant could be difficult for the government at a time when helping poorer parts of the UK is a purported priority for Boris Johnson.
Whitney said there was no direct threat to employment at the Yeovil plant, but the order for new boats would help keep it going.
Leonardo chief executive Alessandro Profumo has previously discussed the potential £ 1billion investment with Graham Stuart, Britain’s exports minister until this week’s reshuffle. The company has underlined its importance to the local economy, as well as the attractiveness of significant foreign direct investment as the post-Brexit UK tries to portray itself as ‘Global Britain’.
The Defense Ministry has yet to release desired specifications for the new helicopter, but Airbus has argued the government should launch an open competition for the job. Airbus would assemble the H175M – a new military version of an existing model – at the Broughton site, which manufactures wings for commercial aircraft such as the A320 and A350.
“We would love to have the opportunity to compete,” said Colin James, Managing Director of Airbus Helicopters UK. “The UK helicopter industry is in a bit of a slump today. It does not generate exports.
“Why wouldn’t you have a competition when you have an aerospace company as strong as Airbus looking to invest in the UK? “
James told the Guardian that Airbus will focus on exporting the helicopters, as well as meeting the UK’s military needs. He argued that the investment in Broughton could help grow the UK helicopter industry as NATO countries begin to design the next generation of rotary-wing aircraft over the next decade.