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SNA: Lockheed's K-MAX ambitions


Good morning from the Surface Navy Association's annual symposium in Arlington, Va.'s beautiful district of Crystal City. (It isn't actually all made from crystal.)

Lockheed Martin got the proceedings started on Tuesday with an ambitious update about its unmanned K-MAX helicopter, two of which are resupplying Marines now in Afghanistan. Company officials are very pleased with the way the helo has been working so far, making about a flight a day in place of manned resupply convoys, and they've got big dreams for what could happen going forward.

The Marines are all good and well, Lockheed says, but company officials said Thursday they've had a lot of interest from another big potential customer: The Army. Army service officials are interested in fitting a K-MAX with electro-optical sensors and some kind of "self-defense" armament, said Lockheed exec George Barton, and potentially duplicating the Marines' resupply experiment on an Army scale.

There's nothing official yet, Barton stressed ("it's just a discussion") but Lockheed hopes it can make the same pitch it made to the Marines: Resupplying troops with an unmanned helicopter takes convoys off the road, removing troops from the danger of ambushes and saving the fuel and wear on their vehicles.

"I think if this current military assessment goes as well as it's going right now, it'll show the benefit to troops on the ground, and I think there's going to be tremendous interest from the U.S. Army, and continued interest from the Marine Corps" Barton said.

Company officials didn't have exact details Tuesday for how K-MAX compares to traditional ground convoys -- as in, exactly how many trips does it save, or how many trucks and soldiers does it take out of the fight. But they did say it takes much less maintenance than a manned helicopter and it can sling a lot of cargo: About 6,000 pounds at sea level and more than 4,000 pounds at 15,000-foot density altitude, the company says.

You might be thinking, great, wonderful, they're obviously eager to do some big sales, but how about a reality check: This is the year of the big crunch, of Austerity America -- does anyone expect anything in this environment but cuts, cuts cuts?  Quite right. But you know the old game: If Lockheed and the services can show they end up saving money with unmanned resupply, given that it reduces the requirement for soldiers and vehicles, this thing could well take off after all.

Barton said Lockheed, Marine and Army officials are working out the "business case" now, based on some of the early data from the Afghanistan trial. He was clearly hopeful: "I think, intuitively, it's there."

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