UK nears decision to buy Boeing AWACS planes - sources

LONDON/PARIS, July 12 (Reuters) - Britain's government is nearing a decision to buy four to six surveillance planes built by U.S. aerospace giant Boeing, sources familiar with the plans said on Thursday - a move that could stir a growing debate over UK and European defense jobs.

The contract to replace its six aging E-3D Sentry airborne early warning (AWACS) planes with a fleet of Boeing E-7 Wedgetail jets would, if confirmed, be worth over $1 billion.

But the decision, which could be announced in coming weeks, is likely to anger some U.K. lawmakers who have called for a full competition, and may also spark formal protests by European defense companies keen for the business.

Airbus, which is said to be teaming up with Sweden's Saab to offer an alternative, is anxious to try to prevent the deal being awarded without a competition and does not rule out mounting a legal challenge, a person close to the matter said.

A spokesman for Britain's defense ministry said, "We tender contracts competitively wherever appropriate. It is too early to comment further at this time."

Boeing and Airbus had no immediate comment. (Reporting by Andrea Shalal and Tim Hepher; Editing by Matthias Blamont)