LONDON (Reuters) - Britain will kick off controversial talks to put its 159 billion pound ($238 billion) military equipment buying program in the hands of a private company as soon as Friday, as it battles to clamp down on cost overruns and delays, industry sources said.
About 20 firms have expressed an interest in a contract to run the Defense Equipment and Support (DE&S) unit, which accounted for almost half of the Ministry of Defense's (MoD) 34.4 billion pound budget last year.
The government will now choose firms for formal discussions.
Should it go ahead, Britain will be the first country to outsource its negotiations with weapons supplies such as BAE Systems
Firms in the running for the contract include defense and engineering companies Bechtel, CH2M Hill and Balfour Beatty
Some of the British companies in the running include WS Atkins
The firms will now decide whether to form alliances, with some of the U.S. groups expected to team up with British ones.
In June, Defense Secretary Philip Hammond laid out the so-called government-owned, contractor-operated (GOCO) plan.
"It's a huge step for MoD outsourcing and has the potential to significantly change the procurement market for defense materiel in the UK," one source close to the bid process said.
The MoD declined to comment on the process.
The government intends to cut the list of bids down later this year, one source said, and in 2014 will compare the best proposal with an alternative option known as 'DE&S plus', which it has not provided details on but has described as an "improvement of the status quo."
Britain is aiming to complete a reform within the next 18 months, Bernard Gray, the chief of defense materiel who spearheaded the GOCO idea, told political magazine Civil Service World this month.
While the defense industry has voiced support for the government's move to reform the way it buys equipment, there are concerns over potential conflicts of interest as some bidders already hold contracts with both the DE&S and its top suppliers.
There is also uncertainty over how the government and eventual winner will ensure commercial confidentiality.
"There could be circumstances where, certainly with the UK entities and occasionally some of the American ones, we might find that elsewhere in the world we're competing against, or they're in our supply chain, or they're alliancing with us," said one senior defense industry source.
"Now if we're going to share information with a commercial entity, we want to make sure that's absolutely firewalled and any unauthorized disclosure is remediated at law."
QinetiQ, for instance, provides services to the MoD as well as technology and equipment to other defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin
Atkins, whose overall work with DE&S is worth less than 1 percent of DE&S' total annual spend, holds numerous defense equipment contracts with the MoD including for software testing for the Lynx Wildcat helicopter.
Lawmakers will debate the issues at the second reading of the Defense Reform Bill in the House of Commons on Tuesday.
Alison Seabeck, who looks after defense equipment and procurement policy for the main opposition Labour Party, told Reuters she was "very open minded" about the proposals, but echoed industry concerns around intellectual property.
(Editing by Mark Potter)
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