June 22, 2013 7:22:49 PM
Nathan Gregory - [email protected]
The fight to sustain production of the UH-72 Lakota, which is manufactured in Columbus, may be helped pending U.S. Congress' approval of a foreign military sale of six helicopters to the government of Thailand.
EADS North America Director of Corporate Communications James Darcy confirmed Friday that Thailand has requested to purchase the aircraft. U.S. senators Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker released a joint announcement Thursday, expressing their support of the proposed deal.
EADS North America is parent company of American Eurocopter, which has a plant in Columbus that produces the Lakota. The Columbus facility currently has a contract to build 41 helicopters in 2014 and 10 in 2015 for the U.S. military. That contract is being jeopardized by sequestration cuts that would cut that number down to 10 in 2014 and none in 2015.
Cochran, vice chairman of the Senate Defense Appropriations Committee, said the proposed sale would help ensure the plant is able to continue to efficiently support the U.S. military.
"The sale of these aircraft has the potential to benefit our relationship with an important ally and to enhance the reputation of Mississippi's manufacturing capabilities," Cochran said. "The men and women who produce the Lakota helicopters for the Department of Defense are among the best in the industry."
Wicker said international support for the aircraft "speaks volumes for Mississippi's continued success as a high-tech manufacturing leader.
"The purchase of these helicopters comes during an important time as our defense strategy pivots toward Asia," Wicker said. "I have great confidence that the Lakota aircraft will provide our Thai allies with the ability to work seamlessly with American forces. International support for the Lakota speaks volumes for Mississippi's continued success as a high-tech manufacturing leader."
Darcy said any foreign military sale requires a notification to Congress followed by a 30-day period during which a joint resolution in the House and Senate would have to be filed to block the sale. Though Eurocopter officials do not anticipate any difficulties, an official announcement will not be made until that time expires. If the deal is approved, it could pave the way for more contracts with foreign allies.
"Broadly speaking, foreign military sales provide a number of benefits. There can be economic benefits just from having a larger operating fleet out there and multiple customers. Foreign military sales help sustain the industrial base both broadly and also for this particular helicopter," Darcy said. "It's very significant as the first foreign military sale for the Lakota because there are a number of other potential foreign military sale opportunities out there. Often, having signed that first deal facilitates follow-on opportunities with other countries."
Darcy said the longer a production facility keeps its doors open, the easier it is to have follow-on contracts for Department of Defense customers in the future. For U.S. forces to be operating with allies who have the similar aircraft and equipment provides operational benefits as a function of that commonality, Darcy said.
"This is really just the start for the Lakota. There are follow-on opportunities for the number of different countries and services that are interested. There are other military and homeland security opportunities. We've been discussing with the Air Force the possibility of replacing their UH1N helicopter fleet with Lakotas, and we also see the potential to augment some of the U.S. Coast Guard's mission with a number of Lakotas for specific missions that they have," he said. "We're continuing to talk with the Army and the National Guard about their requirements and how best to meet those, so it's a very, very versatile platform. It has a lot of potential applications, and it's been delivered in more than 20 different configurations, so it really is a great base platform for a lot of different missions within the United States or that allied nations may have."
Darcy said the U.S. House of Representatives has restored funding to the Lakota program for the Army in the language of its amendments to proposed sequestration budget proposed by country leaders in April.
"This still has to go through the House and a lot can change between now and the fall, but we're hopeful the Senate will validate the requirement in the same way that the House of Representatives has," he said.
Eurocopter employees and Mississippi leaders, including Wicker, held a rally last month to call on Congress to reconsider the cuts.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.