As Bell Helicopter Textron [TXT] and Boeing [BA] prepare to ramp up production of the V-22 Osprey this year, both international interest and expanded use of the aircraft by U.S. forces could necessitate expansion of the production line, a top industry executive said last week.

“We are on a path to really accelerate the program,” Gene Cunningham, vice president of the Bell Boeing Program Office in Amarillo, Texas, told sister publication Defense Daily in a March 13 telephone interview. “Whereas in the past we’ve been putting out a little more than a dozen airplanes per year, in a couple of years we’ll be putting three airplanes out per month.”

A year ago, Bell Boeing was awarded a multi-year contract from the Pentagon for 166 Ospreys. Under that contract, Cunningham said, 19 Ospreys will be delivered to the U.S. military this year, followed by a ramp-up in production to 28 next year and 36 per year beginning in 2011.

“That gave us some real stability in the program, especially given the economic challenges that are out there right now,” he said.

The V-22 Osprey is a tiltrotor aircraft manufactured by Boeing Rotorcraft Systems and Bell Helicopter, a Textron Inc. company. Bell and Boeing are partnering on design, production and support of the U.S. fleet, which will reside primarily with the Marine Corps. The Marines have committed to purchase 360 Ospreys–designated MV-22–while the Navy is to receive 48 V-22s. Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) plans to assemble a fleet of 50 CV-22s.

AFSOC officials last month revealed that they have requested funding in the Air Force’s next six-year spending blueprint to accelerate the purchase of CV-22s to eight aircraft per year starting in FY’10 (Defense Daily, Feb. 17). AFSOC plans to declare Initial Operational Capability for their CV-22s this month, but the command will not have enough of the airplanes to support regular deployments for several more years. A full fleet of 50 would be assembled by 2015 if the proposed acceleration is approved, according to AFSOC officials.

Cunningham said discussions on how to achieve that higher production rate are under way with both the Air Force and the Marine Corps.

“We’ve been working with them on those plans,” he said. “We do have a limit on the number of airplanes we can build in a given year. We know we can get up to, for a very short period of time, something like 40 or 41 airplanes” per year, he said. “But that is not a sustainable level” under the current production infrastructure and supply base, he added.

“There are investments that would have to take place both in facilities, tools and equipment that would need to take place for us to go to that type of level at a sustained rate,” he said. “And we are having discussions with AFSOC and with the Marine Corps on what it would take to do that.

“If I had to tell you right now, do we have a plan to meet the needs of what AFSOC wants for acceleration?” Cunningham added. “No we don’t.”

The CV-22 was forward deployed for the first time in October to support Operation Flintlock, a joint training exercise in Africa, officials have said. The Air Force’s 8th Special Operations Squadron flew four CV-22s during a three-week mission there.

Cunningham said there has also been an uptick in international interest in the program, naming Norway and the United Kingdom as interested parties.

“We did have discussions with the Norwegians on their search-and-rescue requirement,” he said. However, the solicitation issued by the Norwegian government specifies a helicopter solution, making consideration of the V-22 possible only upon amendment of the proposal.

“We are pleased with the interest and realistic that it takes time to work budgets and requirements through national governments,” Cunningham said. “I envision that we will have a robust international market for the airplane, but we’re at a stage where planners and requirements folks are making an assessment of what the airplane can do.”

He added that the Marine Corps’ deployment of the aircraft to Iraq has helped to bolster that data and generate interest among allies there.

Earlier this year, the Marine Corps Commandant, Gen. James Conway said the previously troubled V-22 program is now performing very well in Iraq (Defense Daily, Jan. 27). The first V-22 squadron deployed there in late 2007, and Conway said the Marine Corps’ current program calls for putting the fourth deployed Osprey squadron on a ship. And Conway has previously said at least one V-22 squadron could be sent to Afghanistan (Defense Daily, Jan. 26).

While the V-22 was tested at length in the U.S. desert, Cunningham said more data on maintenance requirements and how quickly various parts need to be replaced have been obtained since the Osprey started flying regularly in Iraq.

“We’ve learned a lot from this deployment, incorporated that knowledge into the program, and I anticipate we’ll learn just as much from a shipboard deployment and do the same thing,” he said.

Cunningham said various upgrades are also under way on each of the variants. For example, the Marine Corps and AFSOC are developing a belly gun before it is sent to Afghanistan, officials from both services have previously acknowledged.

Asked whether Rolls-Royce has been contracted to undertake an engine upgrade on the system, Cunningham said the only engine-related work being conducted on the airplane right now is on the engine air particle separator being undertaken by Bell Boeing.

“That changes the condition of the air going into the engine…[and] that can enhance engine performance,” he explained.

Earlier this year, Bell Boeing was awarded the first phase of a two-phase Performance Based Logistics (PBL) contract for the V-22, valued at $581 million over a five-year period. The second phase of the PBL contract award, expected to be announced in mid-2010, will include supply chain management for the V-22, which encompasses the purchase, repair, stocking and delivery of spare and repair parts.

“This is definitely a program that’s growing,” Cunningham said. “We’ve got a lot of interest, but we’re making sure we make our commitments and respond to the customer. We’re on a great flight path right now.”