* Companies will base bid on AgustaWestland AW101 helicopter
* Agustland previously paired with Lockheed
* Helicopters would have at least 50 pct US content
By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON, Sept 18 (Reuters) - Northrop Grumman and Italy's Finmeccanica SpA's AgustaWestland on Tuesday said they were joining forces to compete for the new U.S. Air Force Combat Rescue helicopter and the U.S. Navy's new "Marine One" presidential helicopter.
The two companies said they signed a comprehensive teaming agreement to respond to the two anticipated U.S. competitions, with Northrop serving as the prime contractor in both cases.
Paul Meyer, vice president and general manager of advanced programs for Northrop's aerospace systems sector, told Reuters the agreement created a "solid team" that would submit an essentially "off-the-shelf" offering for both competitions, based on AgustaWestland's existing AW101 helicopter.
He said Northrop had already identified a possible site for assembly of the helicopters in the United States, but declined to name it.
He said AgustaWestland would initially ship the helicopters to the U.S. facility, where Northrop would integrate U.S. avionics and other equipment. He said the helicopter would have at least 50 percent U.S. content, but gave no further details since the competitions are just beginning.
Bruno Spagnolini, chief executive of AgustaWestland, told Reuters the two companies could consider expanding the agreement to include some production at a future point.
The announcement marks a sharp turn for AgustaWestland, which was previously teamed with Lockheed Martin Corp on the Navy's last attempt to buy a new presidential helicopter, and the U.S. Air Force's effort to replace its aging search and rescue helicopters.
Both programs were eventually canceled amid rising costs.
The Air Force released a draft request for proposals for a new combat rescue helicopter last Friday with an eye to formally kicking off the competition later this fall.
Meyer said he expected the Air Force competition to proceed, despite mounting budget pressures, given the advanced age of the service's current fleet of 148 rescue helicopters.
Sikorsky Aircraft, a unit of United Technologies Corp , Boeing Co, and Textron Inc's Bell Helicopter are also interested in bidding for the helicopter orders -- among the few bigger competitions available in the United States.
Meyer and Spagnolii said the new teaming agreement made sense given the AgustaWestland's expertise in building helicopters, and Northrop's experience in integrating large aircraft programs. "We speak the same language," Meyer said. "We understand the issues associated with the aircraft."
The teaming announcement comes a week after Britain's BAE Systems Plc and European aerospace group said they were in advanced talks about a merger.
Spagnoli said AgustaWestland's parent company, Finmeccanica, was also interested in mergers, but it was too soon to speculate about a larger deal involving Northrop and Finmeccanica.
"It's probably way too early for that," Meyer said. "We're not prepared nor willing to discus anything else at this point in time."