28th April 2016 – 17:30by Grant Turnbull in Atlanta
With end of production on the horizon for the US Army’s UH-72A Lakota, Airbus Helicopters Inc. (AHI) is redoubling efforts to find international customers for its Mississippi-built helicopter through all-important foreign military sales (FMS).
Lakota production is currently planned to continue into 2018, with the US Army and Congress both expressing a desire to procure more aircraft. Though once the company fulfils all its US Army orders there are currently no international customers that can sustain Lakota production at the Columbus, Mississippi, plant.
So far, the US arm of Airbus Helicopters has only been able to secure six FMS orders from the Royal Thai Army, all of which have now been delivered. The only other aircraft built at the Columbus facility is the commercial H125 Écureuil, or AStar as it’s known in the US.
Thailand’s navy and army is buying additional H145s from Airbus Helicopters, which is good news for the company, but not for sustaining Columbus production as they will be military variants coming off the Donauworth line in Germany.
Asked by Shephard what markets AHI is pursuing for the Lakota, Ryan Denton, a senior manager for business development at AHI, said that the focus is worldwide. The US Army and the US Government is supporting the company and its efforts ‘to market and push the aircraft to all four corners of the world.’
Denton told Shephard that despite Thailand opting for the German-built H145M, AHI remained in discussions with the country for additional Lakotas. ‘That’s a customer preference, we are here to support whichever channel they want to go through. If they want to deal with the US Government that’s why we are here.’
As the US Army only operates the light utility ‘Lakota’ version of the H145, AHI does not offer an armed variant of the helicopter through FMS sales.
South America, Asia, Southwest Asia and the Middle East are all in the sights of AHI for FMS. Not mentioning specific countries, Denton said the UH-72 would be ideal for militaries that have ageing fleets of utility helicopters, particularly the legacy UH-1 and BK 117 family.
Several challenges remain, however, not least the US FMS process itself, which is often cited as slow and in need of reform in order to speed up deliveries to allies. Denton told Shephard the he believes the FMS process is well understood by AHI.
‘I think the FMS process is something that is well defined,’ he explained. ‘We understand how it works as a company and that’s why AHI is based out of Grand Prairie [Texas] and we also have a support office in Washington D.C. If a foreign nation elects to go through the FMS process we are supportive every step of the way.’
Another potential headwind for AHI and FMS sales is the recent swell in helicopters that are being sold as excess defence articles (EDA) by the US Army. These include the Bell Helicopter OH-58D Kiowa Warrior and TH-67 Creek, that are both being divested by the service. The latter, ironically, being replaced by the Lakota in US Army service.
Older helicopters, such as 30-year-old UH-60A Black Hawks, are also entering the after market, with several companies now offering refurbished and upgraded ‘A’ variants to foreign governments, as was seen a few months ago at the HAI Heli Expo rotorcraft show in Louisville, Kentucky.
‘It’s something that we may have to address with customers, however, EDAs come at a cost,’ said Denton. ‘They are not free machines, they have a cost that needs to be placed back into them to get them into airworthy status. They also have a higher cost compared to the Lakota to operate.’
‘It is potentially another source of competition but I think there are still differentiators where you can look and say “you know the Lakota makes more sense for this customer and here’s why”, as opposed to an excess defence article.’
Questions remain on what AHI’s plans are for the Columbus facility if no more Lakotas can be sold through FMS or direct commercial sales. One option could be to use the existing workforce in Columbus to manufacture H145s for the commercial market.
That would make sense as the Lakota is for all intents and purposes a H145, and the US remains a key commercial market for the company in areas such as law enforcement and EMS.
‘Looking out that far is tough, especially with all the activity that is going on right now,’ said Denton, adding that current efforts are focused firmly on supplying the US Army. ‘The business decisions as far as the [Columbus] factory is concerned and what happens ten years from now is hard to predict.’
Lakota production was destined to finish several years ago, but had a reprieve when the US Army chose the platform as its basic helicopter trainer in the 2014 Aviation Restructure Initiative. That has meant additional orders from the Pentagon to bolster fleet numbers, both at Fort Rucker and in the US National Guard.