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Thursday November 2, 2006

Pentagon approves plan to buy new helicopters



WASHINGTON, USA ( Reuters, By Andrea Shalal-Esa ) - Top Pentagon officials have approved U.S. Air Force plans to buy a new fleet of up to 141 combat search-and-rescue helicopters, defense analyst Loren Thompson and a defense official said on Wednesday.

A decision to go ahead with the next phase of the competition must still be finalized by Pentagon acquisition chief Ken Krieg, said the official, who asked not to be identified.

The Air Force is expected to announce a winner in the closely-watched competition -- which analysts value at up to $10 billion -- after the Nov. 7 congressional election, Thompson and the official said.

The Pentagon's Defense Acquisition Board, which oversees major acquisition programs, met on Tuesday to discuss plans to buy 141 new helicopters and five test aircraft to replace the Air Force's current fleet of Sikorsky HH-60G Pave Hawks.

Pentagon spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin confirmed the meeting took place. In an e-mailed reply to a query from Reuters, she added: "At yesterday's meeting there was no decision made."

Lockheed Martin Corp.and AgustaWestland Inc., owned by Italy's Finmeccanica SpA , are offering the US101 helicopter chosen last year as the new U.S. presidential helicopter.

Boeing Co. is offering a version of its CH-47 Chinook helicopter that is widely used by the Army and special forces, while Sikorsky, part of United Technologies Corp. , is teamed with Boeing to offer its VH-92 helicopter.

Air Force officials had been upbeat about the program's prospects, citing what they call an urgent need to replace the aging current fleet.

Air Force spokesman Don Manuszewski said the service had not yet received word of any decision from the Pentagon meeting. He said a contract announcement was expected shortly after a formal Pentagon green light.

The Air Force will use the helicopters to rescue wounded soldiers from the battlefield, deliver humanitarian aid and evacuate people caught in disasters like Hurricane Katrina.

Some analysts say the Lockheed-AgustaWestland is likely to win, citing the advantage its three engines offer for combat use and its greater space than Sikorsky's VH-92.

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