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MBDA chief sees Italy keeping missiles stake

PARIS, Sept 19 (Reuters) - The head of MBDA expects Italian defense contractor Leonardo to remain a shareholder in the European missiles maker, signaling a potential asset swap between its owners is off the table.

The maker of Meteor air-to-air weapons and the Storm Shadow/SCALP cruise missile is owned by France's Airbus and Britain's BAE Systems, which both have a 37.5 percent stake, and by Leonardo with 25 percent.

In recent years, Leonardo pondered taking greater control of civil turboprop maker ATR, which it co-owns with Airbus, while Airbus expressed interest in buying out Leonardo at MBDA, prompting periodic discussions over a possible swap.

Asked if he believed Leonardo would remain a shareholder, MBDA Chief Executive Antoine Bouvier said: "Yes."

"Nothing is certain, but the fundamentals concerning Italy and Leonardo, as well as MBDA's involvement in arming Italian platforms, point in that direction," he added.

Bouvier's comments at a meeting of the French aerospace journalists association further diminish the likelihood of a reorganization of MBDA, following recent signs that Italy wants to keep hold of its stake for strategic reasons.

The head of the countrys defense companies association said in June Leonardo would not cut its MBDA stake.

MBDA vies with Lockheed Martin of the United States for position as the world's second largest missiles maker after Raytheon, according to industry analysts.

It was formed in 2001 through a merger of French, British and Italian interests and later absorbed activities held by Airbus in Germany.

Bouvier said he saw no short-term acquisition opportunities in Europe but favored growth through industrial co-operation, having signed a partnership with Romania last month.

Italy's determination to keep a presence in missiles through MBDA leaves unresolved questions over the future of ATR, the world's largest civil turboprop maker.

Airbus and Leonardo disagree over whether to invest in a new turboprop program, a move supported on the Italian side.

ATR Chief Executive Christian Scherer said last week it was examining a possible change in legal status from Groupement d'Interet Economique - a pooling arrangement which favors co-operation but does not post its own profits - to a regular French corporation known as "Societe Anonyme."

Describing such a step as "emancipation," he suggested it could create some flexibility if the owners decided to raise new funds for a future program or open it up to new industrial shareholders, for example in Asia where ATR sees most growth.

"I cannot speak for the shareholders, but before looking at a new program, we need a legal structure that gives us the means to attract new investors and abandon the straightjacket of a private club," he said.

Pressure on ATR to examine its successful but aging portfolio rose this week when Brazil's Embraer said it was thinking about developing a turboprop. (Reporting by Tim Hepher and Cyril Altmeyer; Editing by Mark Potter)