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Foreign Militaries Eye Sikorsky S-97 Raider

NASHVILLE, Tennessee -- It hasn't even flown yet and the U.S. Army program it was intended for was put on hold, possibly indefinitely.

But that hasn't stopped foreign militaries from inquiring about when they might be able to buy the Sikorsky S-97 Raider, the company's next-generation light-attack helicopter. The coaxial design features counter-rotating rotor blades and a push propeller, among other innovations, that will allow it to fly much faster and farther than today's choppers.

Steve Engebretson, director of advanced military programs for Sikorsky, part of Hartford, Conn.-based United Technologies Corp., didn't specify which militaries are interested in purchasing the Raider, but hinted that they're closely watching the company's self-funded technology development project.

"You can go to any of the major helicopter users around the world and we have talked to probably almost all of them," he said on Tuesday at the Army Aviation Association of America’s annual conference, known as Quad A. "Some have more money. Some have more curiosity. Some have a greater need."

Unfortunately for those with available funding, when the U.S. government might approve the product for export is unknown because the American military hasn't yet decided to buy the aircraft. As Engebretson explained while standing near a full-scale model of the S-97 on the showroom floor, "It's very difficult to export a next-generation capability if the U.S. doesn't have it first."

The Raider was designed to target a potentially $16 billion Army weapons program called the Armed Aerial Scout to develop a replacement for the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior, the smallest aircraft in the U.S. fleet. Due to automatic budget cuts, the service stopped the acquisition effort.

Engebretson said the program was "put on acquisition hold," but not canceled outright, according to recent congressional testimony from Army Secretary John McHugh and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno.

The company and its 30-some suppliers have spent tens of millions of dollars designing and developing coaxial technology. Sikorsky is building two Raiders, one of which is slated to fly for the first time later this year from the company's developmental flight center in West Palm Beach, Fla., Engebretson said. He didn't specify a date, but said most of the flight testing will take place in 2015.

Sikorsky in 2010 and 2011 flew an experimental prototype of the design called the X2 that reached speeds of up to 250 knots, or 290 miles per hour. By comparison, the Kiowa Warrior has a top speed of about 120 knots, or 140 miles per hour.

"She was a beauty, but she was straight and fast, and that's all that aircraft was built to do -- to prove the physics of combining a rigid rotor system with a push rotor," Engebretson said. "Raider will now not only go fast, but as you can see we're going to hang mock weapons on it. We're going to represent the weight and drag of a combat aircraft -- even though it won't be real sensors and real weapons -- and then we're going to take it through real maneuvers."

The goal is to show the U.S. military what's possible with the technology in any size helicopter, Engebretson said. Sikorsky has also teamed with Boeing Co., which helps make the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, in offering the SB>1 Defiant, a larger coaxial design, for the Army's Joint Multi-Role technology demonstrator program, or JMR.

While Sikorsky's investment in the Raider and X2 technology represents a "huge industry commitment," the result will only be prototypes, Engebretson noted. "This is not a production platform," he said. "Whoever the first customer is has to be capable of funding and supporting a production development program."

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