Northrop sees strong foreign interest in unmanned helicopter


By Andrea Shalal-Esa

WASHINGTON, Nov 1 (Reuters) - Northrop Grumman Corp on Friday said it saw strong foreign interest in its Fire Scoutunmanned helicopter, but faced challenges in translating thatdemand into actual sales.

George Vardoulakis, Northrop Grumman's vice president formedium-range tactical systems, told reporters the unmannedhelicopter was also subject to tough missile control rules thatmade any foreign sales subject to extra scrutiny.

"We need to temper the speed at which we can actuallydeliver on commitments," Vardoulakis said on a conference call."We certainly hope over time we can turn that interest into somereal acquisition cases."

Foreign sales would also help lower the cost of the Navy'spurchases of the helicopter, he added.

A larger and more powerful version of the Fire Scout madeits first two flights on Thursday.

Captain Patrick Smith, the Navy's Fire Scout programmanager, told reporters the Navy had received inquiries fromU.S. allies about the helicopter's performance, availability andconcept of operations, but had no active foreign military salescases at this time.

Smith said the Navy spent $154 million to develop the newMQ-8C Fire Scout, which is designed to fly twice as long andcarry three times as many sensors and other equipment as thecurrent MQ-8B variant, which is on its seventh at-sea deploymentfor the Navy.

He said the Navy planned shipboard testing of the newaircraft next year followed by a deployment in the military'sAfrica Command later in the year.

Smith said the Navy had initial plans to buy 28 of the new,larger helicopters, but that number could grow in coming years.

A Northrop spokesman said 14 MQ-8Cs were under contract.

Smith said the helicopters gave the Navy the ability to putthe unmanned surveillance drones on board many more ships. Thegreater range and endurance of the new C-model would also allowthe Navy to save money by putting only one helicopter on each ofits new Littoral Combat Ships, instead of the two that werecurrently planned, he said.

Smith said the new MQ-8C model cost about $11.5 millioneach, which was about $1.5 million to $2 million more than thecurrent B-model, but the price depended on the number ofhelicopters ordered at a time.

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