BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The chief executive of Bell Helicopter said on Wednesday he was confident that the company’s concept for the U.S. Army’s next-generation helicopter would be selected for flight testing in an eagerly awaited decision expected within the next month.
Bell Helicopter, a unit of Textron Inc, has teamed up with Lockheed Martin Corp to bid for the U.S. Army’s next-generation helicopter - an order worth billions of dollars - using Bell’s V-280 Valor tiltrotor.
Bell Helicopter CEO John Garrison told Reuters during a visit to Brussels that he was “as confident as you can be in a competition” that the V-280 would be chosen to go to flight testing.
Three other vendors are jockeying for a foothold in the Army’s Joint Multirole helicopter program, one of the few new aircraft programs on the horizon at a time when the Pentagon is due to cut planned spending levels by $1 trillion over the next decade.
The Army is expected to decide in the next month or so which design it will approve for flight testing, a decision known as a “down-select.” Because money is tight, not all designs are expected to get the green light for flight testing.
“We believe we have put forth a proposal that should be selected, down-selected, to build an aircraft and we had a very detailed review with the Army in the last couple of weeks. The review went quite well, and so we are waiting to see. But we’ve treated it as an intense competition,” Garrison said.
“We are very excited about what we have done and we are very excited about the prospects of being down-selected to build the demonstrator (prototype),” he said.
Early work on the new helicopter design will lay the groundwork for the Pentagon’s Future Vertical Lift program, a project that will ultimately replace more than 4,000 medium-lift helicopters used by various military services.
Sikorsky Aircraft, a unit of United Technologies Corp, has teamed with Boeing to submit a bid for the program based on Sikorsky’s X2 design.
Other companies working on designs for the next generation helicopter are AVX Aircraft Co. and Karem Aircraft.
Bell says its V-280 Valor is a third generation tiltrotor aircraft, which will offer the military “unparalleled speed, range and agility”.
Bell, together with Boeing, builds the V-22 Osprey, a tiltrotor aircraft that takes off and lands like a helicopter, but flies like a plane.
Garrison also said he was interested in exploring possible sales of V-22s to NATO, suggesting as a model the way NATO allies have clubbed together to buy C-17 transport planes.
He said Bell was not yet talking to the military alliance about the idea “but we are going to pursue that and see if we can’t get any interest.”
Garrison said Bell was “making progress on foreign military sales for the V-22.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced last year that the first foreign sale of the V-22 would be to Israel.
Japan is another potential buyer of V-22s.
The U.S. government would respond to Japan’s “request for proposals” for 17 tiltrotor aircraft by the end of September, Garrison said.
Potentially, there could be a contract or an agreement between the U.S. and Japanese governments to sell the aircraft “by the end of the year or early next,” he said.
The U.S. government has provided briefings on the V-22 to other countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Italy, Brazil, Colombia, Singapore and Australia, according to U.S. defence officials.
Under the U.S. foreign military sales program, a U.S. ally that is authorized to buy military equipment deals with the U.S. government and not directly with the supplier.
Garrison, who is in Europe to meet officials, visit a company site and attend the Farnborough airshow in Britain, said Bell Helicopter had substantially increased its sales in Europe recently.
“Europe is the second-largest ... vertical lift market in the world and we’ve been under-represented in the market. So we’ve had a strategic focus on improving our position in Europe, given the market size and scope,” he said.
Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa in Washington; Editing by David Gregorio