VIPs in "early stages" to buy military helicopters

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Foreign sales of the V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft built by Boeing Co and Bell Helicopter could grow significantly in the "very near future," top US military officials said, citing interest in both military uses and for VIP transports.

Marine Corps Colonel Dan Robinson, who heads the Pentagon's V-22 joint program office, said the US military's increased use of the V-22 or Osprey around the globe was spurring demand.

The Marine Corps has four V-22s at the Dubai Airshow, where pilots are flying demonstration flights for potential buyers. They were dispatched from a ship off the coast of Africa, flying 1,500 miles to get to the Gulf.

"We see a great opportunity in this region not only from a military FMS (foreign military sales) perspective, but also to be used in the VIP or executive role," Robinson told Reuters at the air show. "You can reconfigure the cargo area quite a bit."

The US Marine Corps and Air Force have a combined fleet of 250 aircraft with 139 more V-22s on order, but military officials see potential additional sales of up to 250 more aircraft in coming decades.

Robinson declined to predict how many aircraft could be sold for VIP use, noting that those discussions were still in the "early stages." But he said some initial sales to foreign militaries could be announced soon.

"In the very near future we could see quite a growth in the foreign military sales area," he said. He declined to provide details.

US officials have provided briefings on the V-22 to the United Arab Emirates, Japan, Canada,Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Italy, Brazil, Colombia, Singapore, and Australia.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced in April that the first foreign sale will be to Israel.

Details are being finalised for an initial sale of six aircraft to Israel at an estimated price of $70m each, with a long-term requirement for twice as many aircraft, according to sources familiar with the deal.

The United Arab Emirates is interested in acquiring about 10 V-22s, a request now being evaluated by the US government, the sources said.

Japan is also interested in 20 to 40 V-22s over the longer term, according to the sources.

Col. Paul Rock, a senior Marine Corps official, said the V-22 program had come a long way from just a year ago.

Use of the aircraft to provide aid in the Philippines after the recent typhoon demonstrated the practical uses of the aircraft, he said.

"It's a terribly tragedy, but also a tremendous example of what a V-22 is able to do," he told Reuters at the air show.

"The V-22 is able to break through bottlenecks by taking supplies from the airfield and bringing directly to the areas where they are needed," he said.

One of the current areas of interest for the US military is how expensive it would be to adapt the V-22s to carry out aerial refueling, Robinson said.

He said Bell Helicopter, a unit of Textron, and Boeing had already conducted a flight demonstration of a prototype refueling system last summer.

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