By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON, Nov 1 (Reuters) - Northrop Grumman Corp on Friday said it saw strong foreign interest in its Fire Scout unmanned helicopter, but faced challenges in translating that demand into actual sales.
George Vardoulakis, Northrop Grumman's vice president for medium-range tactical systems, told reporters the unmanned helicopter was also subject to tough missile control rules that made any foreign sales subject to extra scrutiny.
"We need to temper the speed at which we can actually deliver on commitments," Vardoulakis said on a conference call. "We certainly hope over time we can turn that interest into some real acquisition cases."
Foreign sales would also help lower the cost of the Navy's purchases of the helicopter, he added.
A larger and more powerful version of the Fire Scout made its first two flights on Thursday.
Captain Patrick Smith, the Navy's Fire Scout program manager, told reporters the Navy had received inquiries from U.S. allies about the helicopter's performance, availability and concept of operations, but had no active foreign military sales cases at this time.
Smith said the Navy spent $154 million to develop the new MQ-8C Fire Scout, which is designed to fly twice as long and carry three times as many sensors and other equipment as the current MQ-8B variant, which is on its seventh at-sea deployment for the Navy.
He said the Navy planned shipboard testing of the new aircraft next year followed by a deployment in the military's Africa 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 put the unmanned surveillance drones on board many more ships. The greater range and endurance of the new C-model would also allow the Navy to save money by putting only one helicopter on each of its new Littoral Combat Ships, instead of the two that were currently planned, he said.
Smith said the new MQ-8C model cost about $11.5 million each, which was about $1.5 million to $2 million more than the current B-model, but the price depended on the number of helicopters ordered at a time.