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Tender for new surveillance aircraft must be open to fair competition

3 July 2018

The Chairman of the Defence Committee has written to the Minister of Defence Procurement to request that any requirement for replacing the UK's airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft be put out to a competitive tender, rather than bought ‘off the shelf' with no competition taking place.

AWACS aircraft perform an important function on operations, providing long-range early warning and surveillance capability alongside airborne battle management and communications relay functions. The Royal Air Force possesses six Boeing E-3D Sentry AWACS aircraft. They are currently due to stay in service until 2035, subject to a capability sustainment programme to extend their service life. Reports have emerged however that as part of the Modernising Defence Programme, the Ministry of Defence is considering cancelling the sustainment programme and replacing the Sentry fleet with a new aircraft.

In its letter the Committee criticises the Sentry fleet's poor state of maintenance. The readiness and number of flying hours completed by aircraft have been reducing, and the Committee has heard anecdotal evidence that only one of the six E-3D aircraft is available for service at any one time.

On the possibility of Sentry being replaced with a new system, the letter notes the advantages of a competitive tender in terms of maximising value for money and allowing proper consideration of a range of alternatives. The Committee also considers that a competition is particularly appropriate in this case, as there are viable alternatives available which deserve to be given fair consideration.

Chair's comments

Defence Committee Chairman Dr Julian Lewis MP said:

"AWACS is an important capability for the UK to maintain, particularly given the possibility of future conflict taking place in a heavily contested airspace against peer adversaries. The fact that the capacity of the RAF's current AWACS fleet has been run down to such a low level is greatly to be regretted.

The Ministry of Defence, if it seeks to replace Sentry with an entirely new system, has the opportunity to regenerate this capability and to give proper consideration to the range of available alternatives through a competitive tender. The benefits of doing so are clear, and this is exactly the kind of engagement that the Department should be seeking with industry in its drive to modernise Defence."

Further information

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