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Army touts off-the-shelf helicopter purchases

Official says government is benefiting significantly from adoption of a commercially developed aircraft.

The Army's program manager for utility helicopters extolled the new UH-72A Lakotas now going into active Army and Army National Guard units, saying the government is benefiting significantly from the adoption of a commercially developed aircraft.

The maker of the Lakota, EADS North America, is hoping that benefit will give it an advantage in an expected Army program to produce a new armed scout helicopter to replace the aged OH-58 Kiowa Warriors.

Col. Neil Thurgood told reporters at the annual Association of the U.S. Army meeting Tuesday that EADS has delivered 133 of the planned 345 Lakotas on time and within budget since the first delivery in 2007. The aircraft has proven itself in the variety of missions for which it is designed, including medical evacuation, security, and logistics.

The fact that the Lakota is derived from a commercially proven helicopter whose systems are certified by the Federal Aviation Administration and Federal Communications Commission has made it easier to put it into service with the guard units, he said. The Lakota's communications systems, which are state-of-the-art digital, are compatible with civilian police and emergency service departments, a valuable asset in the guard's support for civil authorities missions, the colonel said.

The Army also saved a lot of money because the Lakota's development was paid for by EADS and benefits from the established equipment supplier base, Thurgood said.

In addition, Thurgood said the Lakota has helped the Army relieve a shortage in its vital UH-60 Blackhawk force by replacing Blackhawks used in the United States, which can be sent to fill out units deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. John Burke, EADS North America's light utility helicopter vice president, said the company has been developing possible modifications to the Lakota that could make it a candidate for the light armed scout program the Army is considering.

Col. Robert Grigsby, program manager for the armed scout program, said the Army is going through a deliberate analysis of alternatives on how to fill that mission. But he noted the current armed scout, the OH-58, is approaching 40 years old and only 261 of the original 331 are left due to combat and accidents.

The Army is budgeting millions of dollars to upgrade and extend the life of the Kiowas, he said.

Gribsby said the Army expects to sign a contract with Bell Helicopter shortly for the first six new OH-58s Congress has funded as war replacements. He hopes to get Congress to restore six of the 12 the Army wanted in 2012.

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