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PARIS, June 21 (Reuters) - Lockheed Martin Corp sees strong export prospects for the CH-53K heavy-lift helicopter it is building for the U.S. Marine Corps, it said on Wednesday, citing interest from Germany and Israel and potentially Japan in coming years.
Dan Schultz, president of Lockheed's Sikorsky helicopter unit, said the CH-53K King Stallion was performing better than expected in testing and had been approved by the Pentagon for full-rate production ahead of schedule. The Marines expect to declare the CH-53K ready for combat use in 2019.
"Everybody needs heavier-lift helicopters," Schultz, who flew earlier model CH-53 helicopters while serving in the Marines, told reporters at the Paris Airshow.
Schultz declined to estimate how many additional CH-53K helicopters could be sold beyond the 200 aircraft to be bought by the Marines, but industry sources say another 100 aircraft could be sold to U.S. allies and potentially the U.S. Navy.
The German defence ministry is expected later this month or early next to take the first step in an acquisition process for a new heavy-lift helicopter that will pit the CH-53K against Boeing Co's CH-47 Chinook, a twin-engine helicopter that has been in production for decades. It would then release formal requirements next year and award a contract a year later.
Schultz said the CH-53K was a new design that could carry inside an entire pallet or Humvee, a big advantage over earlier models, and 12,200 kg (27,000 lbs) externally - more than triple the external load carrying capacity of the predecessor CH-53E.
He said the cost was currently around $88 million a copy, but Lockheed and the Navy were implementing steps to further lower costs. Foreign orders could also help drive down costs by increasing economic order quantities.
Experts say the cost of the Chinook would be far lower to buy, but it would take more flights to accomplish the same mission, given its lower carrying capacity.
Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Morel, the government's chief test pilot for the aircraft, said pilots and maintainers were consulted heavily before Sikorsky began designing the helicopter, resulting in an aircraft that was much easier to fly and service than other helicopters.
He said the Navy, which oversees Marine Corps aviation, was studying if it could save money and time by eliminating some test points no longer needed given the helicopter's strong performance.
Germany's competition for around 40 aircraft is the first on the horizon, and both Lockheed and Boeing are trying to forge ties with German firms that could provide components for the helicopters, and work on maintenance in coming years.
Israel has asked for pricing and availability for 20 aircraft, but could potentially order more, Schultz said.
In coming years, Japan could also look at orders since it now operates an earlier CH-53 model, Schultz added.
Gene Cunningham, vice president of global sales for Boeing's defence unit, said the CH-47 was a strong contender for the German competition, saying it helped meet Germany's desire for a low-risk, affordable solution.
Other NATO allies include Britain, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy also operate Chinooks, so a decision to buy the CH-47 would make it easier for the German military to operate together with other militaries, Cunningham said in an interview.
"That seems to be a big factor as well with the German government," Cunningham said. "The high availability rate of the aircraft would assure the mission readiness of Germany as a partner." (Reporting by Andrea Shalal and Mike Stone; Editing by Mark Potter)