Bell Helicopter will this year deliver its military rotorcraft to international customers for the first time in 20 years, a move the US airframer believes will mark its return to the global stage.

"I hate to use the phrase 'we are back', but we are back," says Bell vice-president of military sales Rich Harris.

Due to be handed over in 2017 are the first of an eventual 12 AH-1Z attack helicopters to Pakistan, along with an initial example of five Bell Boeing V-22 Ospreys ordered by the Japan Ground Self-Defence Force.

Although Harris describes the AH-1Z and related UH-1Y utility helicopter as the "hottest tickets from a salesman's perspective", it has yet to register any overseas sales of either, except for the deal with Islamabad.

The bulk of its production is destined for the US Marine Corps, which has ordered 160 and 189 examples of the UH-1Y and AH-1Z, respectively.

However, Harris believes it is close to sealing new orders, with Eastern Europe emerging as the likely source of short-term interest.

In the Czech Republic, which is already Bell's European civil helicopter hub, the UH-1Y has been shortlisted for a 12-unit buy, to be acquired via the US government's Foreign Military Sales mechanism.

Although it faces competition from Leonardo Helicopters' AgustaWestland AW139M, Harris notes that its platform is "combat proven, while the Leonardo product is not".

In addition, Prague's shortlist is notable for the absence of the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk. "It is the first time the UH-60 has been eliminated as a competitor.

"It is the reigning king that dislodged Bell 20 years ago from a combat utility perspective; that's why I like to say we are back."

Harris expects elections in the autumn in the Czech Republic will spur a decision on the requirement. In the meantime it is also eyeing Poland and Romania as opportunities, in both cases for the AH-1Z.

Warsaw has stringent requirements around offset work for any acquisition. Harris declines to speculate on the level of local content Bell could offer, but says it has held talks with state-backed aerospace and defence firm PGZ about possible involvement.

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