* Lockheed sees big opportunities in future
* Officials say system would save time and money
* Next-generation helicopter would replace 4,000 aircraft
By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON, Aug 5 (Reuters) - Lockheed Martin Corp on Monday said it is developing a universal package of cockpit equipment, electronics and weapons for the U.S. Army's next-generation helicopter, an approach it says will save money and time, and make future upgrades easier.
Lockheed, the Pentagon's No. 1 supplier, is pooling resources across the company to develop a mission equipment package for the 4,000 next-generation helicopters that the Army expects to starting field around 2034 - and other helicopters operated by the U.S. military and countries around the world.
Traditionally, the U.S. military signs a contract with a helicopter manufacturer, which then signs agreements with various subcontractors for electronic equipment, cockpit systems and weapons. That equipment is then closely tied to the particular helicopter, which can make later upgrades expensive.
Mounting budget pressures have spurred the military to look at alternative approaches, including buying mission equipment separately and then supplying it to the helicopter maker. Officials are also pushing for more "open architecture" systems that allow easier upgrades in the future.
The Joint Multirole helicopter program is being closely watched by Lockheed, Boeing Co and other arms makers, which are eager for a foothold in one of the few new aircraft programs on the horizon at a time when U.S. military spending is shrinking.
Dan Spoor, vice president of aviation systems for Lockheed Martin's Mission Systems and Training business, told Reuters that building mission packages separately from the helicopters would help lower costs by tapping greater economies of scale and eliminating some costs now added by the aircraft makers.
"Every time a piece of hardware is acquired by an aircraft provider, there's cost to acquire it, there's cost to put it into the aircraft, that may have additional handling costs or fees that they put on it," he said.
Spoor said Lockheed hoped to leverage billions of dollars of investment already made in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and other weapons to keep down costs and reduce risk associated with new development program.
The equipment package would be "platform agnostic" and could be used on any of the helicopter designs that are being developed for the new program, he said.
Lockheed is in non-exclusive discussions with the three companies that are working on aircraft designs to ensure that they incorporated a sufficient processor "backbone" so the mission equipment could be integrated later, Spoor said.
Lockheed and other weapons makers have been working with the Army on 10 small study contracts associated with the equipment for the new project since 2012. The Army is expected to award additional contracts for more work this year and next, but larger funding streams are unlikely for several years.
Spoor said he expected the next-generation helicopter to survive the budget woes facing the Pentagon given the limited lifespan of the existing fleet, but said those pressures underscored the need for more affordable solutions.
The Army in June chose three companies to work on "technology demonstration" contract to flesh out designs for the new aircraft - Bell Helicopter, a unit of Textron Inc ; a team comprising Boeing and Sikorsky Aircraft, which is a unit of United Technologies Corp ; and privately held AVX Aircraft.
That work will lay the groundwork for the Pentagon's Future Vertical Lift program, a project that will ultimately replace more than 4,000 medium-lift helicopters used by various military services.