By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Boeing Co and Sikorsky Aircraft, a unit of United Technologies Corp, said they were teaming up to develop a next-generation multi-role helicopter for the U.S. military.
The strategic teaming agreement, signed January 13 and announced on Friday, reunites two of the biggest U.S. helicopter manufacturers, who often compete for orders but joined forces to build the Comanche, a U.S. Army helicopter program that was canceled in 2004.
Sikorsky, maker of the Black Hawk utility helicopter, and Boeing, which builds Apache attack helicopters, plan to submit a joint proposal in response to an Army technology demonstration project unveiled earlier this month to attract design plans for the new aircraft.
The Army program will lay the groundwork for the Pentagon's Future Vertical Lift program -- a massive project that will ultimately replace more than 4,000 medium-lift helicopters used by various U.S. military services.
Boeing and Sikorsky will compete with other industry teams to build and fly one or more demonstrator aircraft in 2017, which would then be evaluated for the bigger program.
"This is the beginning of a long-term strategic partnership that will make Boeing and Sikorsky the biggest actors in the global military helicopter business," said Loren Thompson, a Virginia-based defense consultant and chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute think tank.
Officials from Sikorsky and Boeing said joining forces on the competition would help the companies deliver an innovative, affordable helicopter.
"Our teaming agreement is the continuation of a long-standing relationship between Boeing and Sikorsky and reflects a common vision for the future of Army aviation," Chris Chadwick, president of Boeing Military Aircraft, said in a statement.
By pooling their resources, the companies will be able to offer the military "a revolutionary capability for the warfighter at an affordable cost for the U.S. taxpayer," said Mick Maurer, president of Sikorsky.
The Army launched the technology demonstration project earlier this month, saying it would support the Pentagon's program to develop the next generation of vertical-lift aircraft with greater performance, reliability and affordability.
Thompson said the Boeing-Sikorsky agreement could spur other companies in the sector like Bell Helicopter, a unit of Textron Inc and AgustaWestland, a unit of Italy's Finmeccanica SpA, to consider their own teaming agreements.
"If the two biggest helicopter makers get together, they become nearly unbeatable in the marketplace and their competitors are at a real disadvantage," said Thompson.
Sikorsky is teamed with Lockheed on the MH-60 helicopters it builds for the U.S. Navy. The two companies are also working together on a bid to build a new search and rescue helicopter for the Air Force.
(Reporting By Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick, John Wallace and Andrew Hay)