One of the Austria’s Eurofighter Typhoons performs during a recent air show © Reuters

Airbus is weighing legal action against Austria should its defence ministry exclude the company from a tender for 12 small military helicopters, as the long-running row over a fighter jet contract escalates.

The European aerosace and defence group issued the warning after the Austrian defence ministry last week said it would like to bar Airbus if possible from the €50m-€60m tender, due to an ongoing investigation into an allegedly fraudulent €2bn sale of Eurofighter jets in 2003.

“It is interesting on what basis they would like to exclude us,” said an Airbus insider. “There is no legal case against us opened in Austria, only investigations. Airbus Helicopters is not subject to these investigations.”

A spokesman for the Austrian defence ministry told the Financial Times: “It is understandable that currently we should not seek new business relationships with a company against which criminal investigations are running.”

The defence ministry said a formal bidding process had not been launched for the helicopter contract, although “requests for information” had been sent to helicopter manufacturers, including Airbus Group.

Potential bidders are to indicate their interest in bidding, the product they would offer, and a ballpark price by September 26. However, Airbus, which is the market leader in the segment with its H145 light twin helicopter, has said it was also considering staying out of the bidding race as long as the ministry continued to criticise it in public.

The tit-for-tat row has been sparked by the legal battle over a 2003 contract to provide 18 Eurofighter combat jets. The contract was renegotiated in 2007 but the ministry of defence has said it would not have signed a new deal if it had been aware of evidence it uncovered subsequently in an internal investigation, which it alleges shows €183m in costs were illegally hidden in the pricing of the jets.

In April, it was revealed that Tom Enders, chief executive of Airbus, was being investigated as part of the probe, along with dozens of others. He hit back at the revelations, accusing the Austrian government of trying to score “cheap political points” and of abusing the legal system.

The Eurofighter case is politically sensitive in Austria, which holds national elections on October 15. However, it is unclear whether Airbus could legally be excluded from a bidding process under EU rules.

The row comes at a difficult time for Airbus’s helicopter division, which has seen both its Superpuma military transport and NH90 Tiger attack rotorcraft grounded in the past year after crashes.

The division has also struggled against a severe downturn in the offshore oil and gas market. In the first half of this year, earnings tumbled by more than a third.

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