The future of UH-72 production is now in the hands of Congress. Different budget committees have either supported the Army's plan to cut 2014-15 procurement or added back differing numbers of helicopters. The issue will have to be resolved in conference between the House and Senate later this year.
Eurocopter is keen to retain skilled staff in the hope that the Army's long-expected Armed Aerial Scout (AAS) program comes to fruition. EADS North America has developed several prototypes and carried out de-risking work on the AAS-72X+, an armed version of the Lakota at its own cost and risk. The aircraft would also be produced in Columbus, if selected by the Army, but the future of the AAS program is unclear.
The Army has issued another amendment to its request for information (RFI) on the AAS requirement, and completed another round of debriefings with contractors that participated in voluntary flight demonstrations (VFD) a year ago. The amended RFI and VFD debriefings indicate the Army is still working toward an AAS decision but not whether it will launch a competition for a new scout helicopter, extend the service life of the existing Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warrior or use Boeing AH-64D Apache attack helicopters in the scout role until it can afford a replacement.
Eurocopter says it dominates 50% of the U.S. commercial helicopter market, where the Astar is its biggest-selling product. Before the economic crisis, the company was selling roughly one AS350 every business day, but sales have fallen to around half that. With the company planning to produce 40 AS350s in 2014, increasing to 50 in 2015 and 60 in 2016, French workers are perhaps nervous about what the changes might mean.
But Eurocopter officials are bullish about the prospects. “The market is not permanent,” said Maudet. “We are a bit behind on Squirrel bookings, but this is not due to the commercial market but due to military deals.”
Columbus-produced AS350s will be delivered to U.S. customers, and Eurocopter is looking at the potential to deliver them to Canada and Central America, as well.