Leonardo owns Britain’s sole military helicopter factory in Yeovil. “Ours is already done, theirs isn’t, so you’ve got inherent risk,” he added.
Airbus says it will design a military version of its H175 civilian aircraft that is sold as a transport for heavy users such as the oil and gas industry.
It insists this is the better plan since it will be able to custom-build the helicopter around the MoD’s demands rather than buying a craft designed around Italian specifications. Leonardo has said it will build a helicopter fit for the UK’s needs.
Choosing Airbus would also mean a second helicopter factory in the UK, making Britain more of a centre for selling the craft, it argued.
Both companies touted lower costs for taxpayers since each has a related civilian version that can be used for training. They are both big suppliers to the MoD and keen to show that training costs can be slashed through the use of control systems familiar to Royal Air Force pilots.
The successful bidder will have access to an export market that could be worth up to 550 orders, with the UK as a primary customer – a very useful marketing tool.
The MoD will host a “market interest day” on Thursday to deliver more information to potential bidders.
The contract for 36 to 44 aircraft could be worth up to £1bn.
Defence contractors are cognisant of the fact that military contracts come with the expectation of local jobs. Each is offering up to 400.
Leonardo would build a new production line at Yeovil at the historic home of Westland helicopters, and Airbus would make the helicopters at its site in Broughton near Chester.
The Puma was introduced in the early 1970s and replaced the 1950s-era Westland Whirlwind, which was a licenced build of the US Sikorsky Chickasaw. Its first major deployment was in Zimbabwe, overseeing the ceasefire after which Robert Mugabe became prime minister.
It was also deployed in Northern Ireland, Belize and during British manoeuvres during the Desert Shield and Desert Storm operations in the liberation of Kuwait from Iraq in 1991.
However, it struggled in hot conditions at altitude in Afghanistan, according to an RAF assessment of its history. It was thus upgraded from 2012 to extend its life and power with new engines and other improvements.