| FARNBOROUGH England
FARNBOROUGH England Airbus Group is ready to offer Poland a sweeping partnership alongside its core European nations to support its bid for a major military helicopter contract, a senior executive told Reuters.
The proposal comes as Airbus Group competes with Sikorsky of the United States, a unit of United Technologies, and AgustaWestland, owned by Italy's Finmeccanica, in a contest to sell 70 rotorcraft worth an estimated $3 billion.
"We want to bring Poland in the direction of Europe and the Airbus Group in defense and especially on helicopters where they have two big tenders, one of which is already ongoing," Airbus Helicopters Chief Executive Officer Guillaume Faury said.
"We view this process as an accelerator and a catalyst for Poland to become the fifth Airbus nation," Faury said, adding there should be "more Europe in defense".
Originally purely a jetmaker, Airbus was founded in 1970 by four countries: Britain, France, Germany and Spain.
Although it maintains factories and political roots in the four "home nations," it is now owned by Franco-German-led Airbus Group, formerly EADS. Britain is no longer a shareholder. The group's helicopter division was until recently called Eurocopter.
The Airbus Helicopters offer, outlined by its top executive in an interview with Reuters coinciding with the Farnborough Airshow, appears to be a further bid to draw Warsaw away from traditional ties with the United States.
Poland said in December it may consider buying a stake in what was then known as EADS.
Last year a senior Airbus Group official was quoted in Polish media as saying the company wanted to "marry with Poland".
So far, however, it remains unclear to what extent Poland would be willing to let such broad considerations drive its defense needs amid regional concerns over the Ukraine crisis.
Since the end of the Cold War, Poland has usually kept closer defense and security ties with the United States than with Europe.
But in the past few years influential policymakers in Poland have been lobbying for a stronger security relationship with the rest of Europe, especially after the Obama administration scaled back its missile defense shield in eastern Europe, a step that some in Poland considered a betrayal by Washington.
Military procurement projects offer productive chances for realignments that happen only rarely, Faury said, adding the Tiger and NH-90 military helicopter contracts had allowed Spain to build up its own industry.
Although Airbus Group has curbed the influence of French and German state shareholdings, any broad partnership with Poland would likely need the support of a grouping called the 'Weimar Triangle' - the leaders of France, Germany and Poland.
"The initiative towards Poland is known and shared with German and French governments," Faury said.
"The place to discuss those matters is the Weimar Triangle ... and there are not just industrial but also defense and geopolitical stakes, which heads of government and ministers have a role to discuss."
Poland, the sixth biggest European Union economy, had planned to spend almost 140 billion zlotys ($46 billion) on defense in the coming years, before it was forced to cut back due to an economic slowdown that hurt the 2013 state budget.
Still, its defense spending remains relatively robust at just under 2 percent of gross domestic product.
Sikorsky Aircraft President Mick Maurer said his company was keeping a close watch on Poland’s helicopter competition, which analysts say is the largest currently under way in the world.
"It’s an important competition for us. It’s a technically and programmatically complex program that is pretty high on our list,” he told Reuters at the Farnborough Airshow.
Maurer said Sikorsky expects to expand its operations in Poland, where the company already has 2,000 employees and operates its second largest helicopter plant.
“That campaign would create a lot of additional work in Poland,” he said. “That’s one of our ‘home’ countries. We’re very interested in this competition.”
Poland is meanwhile in the process of launching a second procurement program for 32 new attack helicopters.
($1 = 3.0465 Polish Zlotys)
(Aditional reporting by Christian Lowe; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)