Italy's AgustaWestland defends Obama helicopter plan
PARIS, April 28 |
PARIS, April 28 (Reuters) - Italy's AgustaWestland (SIFI.MI) on Tuesday defended the performance of the helicopter it wants to supply President Barack Obama and urged a compromise over U.S. plans to scrap a $13 billion fleet renewal project.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates recommended this month that the project to buy a new Marine One fleet be scrapped, saying its cost had doubled and that helicopters built by the Finmeccanica (SIFI.MI) unit would have a 5-10 year useful life.
AgustaWestland Chief Executive Giuseppe Orsi said in an interview that the helicopter it planned to supply in a two-stage procurement contract led by Lockheed Martin (LMT.N) would fly for at least 30 years, just like most aircraft.
"The helicopter is certified today by both civil and military authorities for a minimum of 10,000 hours and that means 30-35 years of activity," he told Reuters.
"We have agreed with the (U.S.) Navy a series of tests to confirm these 10,000 hours," he said in a telephone interview.
Obama has questioned the need for a new helicopter and said the renewal plan was an example of procurement "gone amok".
Orsi was speaking as AgustaWestland delivered the ninth out of 23 VH-71 helicopter airframes required in the programme.
The first nine helicopters -- four test aircraft and five production ones -- were built under an initial contract known as Increment 1. Manufacturers insist it is extra features that were to have been added in the second stage that pushed up the cost.
Orsi backed an industry plan to offer the U.S. Navy, which oversees the presidential helicopter fleet, a compromise by reverting to the original budget of $6.8 billion and sticking with the specifications used for the first nine helicopters.
That would allow manufacturers to provide 19 helicopters without any extra cost, he said.
Gates has however already come out against the idea.
"There is no other better helicopter available than the VH-71 in the next 10 years. They keep to the original budget and add a fleet that in terms of numbers is equal to the one they have today but in terms of capability will be much better".
Orsi said AgustaWestland expected to post improved orders and deliveries in 2009, but with the civil share falling.
"We have had some (commercial) deferrals but not significant ones, and they have been offset by paramilitary or government purchases," he said.
"We are working on financing and we agreed with our shareholder that we will try to help our (commercial) customers in financing, which will take several forms," he said.
(Reporting by Tim Hepher)
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