* Company delivers 200th helicopter to US Army
* Sees possible initial foreign order later this year or early next
* Developing variant for possible armed helicopter competition
By Andrea Shalal-Esa
COLUMBUS, Mississippi, March 1 (Reuters) - Europe’s EADS said it is working with the U.S. government to drum up more orders for the successful Light Utility Helicopter it is building for the U.S. Army, and could see initial foreign orders for the new aircraft in about a year.
Sean O‘Keefe, chairman and chief executive of EADS North America, said the company has invested a significant amount of its own money to develop armed variants of the UH-72A Lakota that could help the Army upgrade or replace its aging fleet of Vietnam-era OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopters. He declined to specify the amount invested.
The company is working with the U.S. government on several possible foreign military sales to buyers in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, while continuing to reach out to other federal and state agencies, O‘Keefe told reporters on the way to a ceremony marking delivery of the 200th Lakota helicopter to the Army.
Current plans call for the Army to buy a total of 346 Lakota helicopters for its active forces and the Army National Guard through 2016, but EADS hopes its on-time, on-budget performance translates into further orders.
“The future remains bright for this helicopter,” O‘Keefe told 400 workers and local officials in a hangar at the Columbus, Mississippi site where EADS and its American Eurocopter subsidiary build helicopters for the U.S. military, Coast Guard and commercial customers.
Marc Paganini, president and chief executive of American Eurocopter, told Reuters he was convinced the company would eventually produce close to 500 of the helicopters.
He said considerable work had already been done on possible foreign orders, and the first sales could be announced by the end of this year or early next.
Governor Phil Bryant, touting the benefits of Mississippi as a “right to work state,” said he fully expected EADS to build another 300 of the new helicopters at the Mississippi plant.
Bryant said he had offered EADS officials to meet with foreign governments interested in the helicopter and vouch for the state’s workforce.
“I’d love to be their best salesman,” Bryant told Reuters.
Army Major General Tim Crosby said the program won frequent praise from Pentagon officials for its execution, and said the helicopter itself was performing “brilliantly” as it carried out various missions in the United States.
He said the Army was doing all it could to support possible foreign and commercial sales that would keep the Mississippi production line running beyond 2016, which would keep prices low and ensure continued supply of spare parts for the Army.
“I want them to continue because that keeps our prices down as taxpayers,” Crosby told reporters after the ceremony.
Crosby said mounting pressures to reduce the federal deficit could potentially result in a cut to the Army’s plans to buy a total of 346 of the helicopters, but there were no signs of reductions at this point.
“We’re not backing away from that number at all,” he said.
Crosby said the Army was still hoping to hold a flight demonstration this spring for possible contenders to build a new armed light helicopter. He said the Army would finalize details for the demonstration once the Pentagon’s acting acquisition chief signed a memorandum approving it.
“Hopefully we will get that release before long,” Crosby said, adding that the Army expected EADS and four or five other companies to participate.
He said the demonstration would help the Army determine if there were commercial helicopters on the market now that could meet the Army’s requirements versus its baseline plan to upgrade and extend the life of its OH-58 Kiowa Warriors.
Boeing Co, Bell Helicopter, a unit of Textron Inc , and Sikorsky Aircraft, a unit of United Technologies Corp, have expressed interest in the Army’s latest attempt to start buying a new armed helicopter.
The Army canceled a previous program run by Bell Helicopter after costs surged, and has been trying for years to get started with a new program.
EADS’s O‘Keefe said the company was convinced it could produce a new helicopter for the Army for the same amount or less that it would spend to keep its aging OH-58s flying longer.