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does the army still use little birds
According to the U.S. Special Operation Command’s (USSOCOM) acquisition executive, James Smith, the unit’s Little Bird helicopters might be experiencing their final years as America’s light special operations helicopters.
Smith made the statement during the NDIA Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict Symposium, which took place last February. He indicated that the most likely replacement for the venerable Little Bird would be a variant of the U.S. Army’s Future Vertical Lift (FVL) Capability Set 1. The FVL program aims to upgrade the Army’s light, medium, and heavy-lift helicopters.
SOCOM will make its final decision in 2024. It will either be to further upgrade the Little Bird or to replace it with a variant from the FVL program. By that point, however, the Little Bird fleet will have been operating continuously for many years under extreme combat conditions. It seems more likely, then, that SOCOM will want to procure a new helicopter rather than upgrade an old one.
A few years ago, SOCOM’s Little Bird fleet underwent a modernization and upgrade program dubbed the Mission Enhanced Little Bird (MELB) program. The MELB upgraded the previous version (AH-6J and MH-6J) by adding an additional blade to the craft’s main rotor (bringing the total number of blades to six), improving the tail rotor drive system and tail boom, enlarging the aft doors of the cabin to allow for easier egress of operators, and enhancing its landing gear.
In December, SOCOM awarded Boeing two significant contracts to upgrade its helicopter fleet. The first contract, which is a seven-year program worth $1.1 billion, was for the maintenance of the current MH-47 Chinook and MH-60 Blackhawk fleet. The second contract, worth $48 million, was for the production of an unspecified number of MELB kits. Both contracts are expected to be fulfilled by December 2026.
The Boeing AH-6 is a light attack helicopter. Flown by the 160th SOAR, the chopper specializes in armed reconnaissance, direct action, and close air support. It can be outfitted with a variety of weapons, to include the GAU-19 .50 caliber Gatling gun, M134 Minigun, and Hellfire or Stinger missiles.
The MH-6 is the unarmed version of the chopper. Its small size and extreme maneuverability make it an ideal aerial platform to surgically insert and extract SOF units from targets. It can even carry motorcycles or support ground troops by carrying snipers. Jack Murphy has had some experience in that role.
Both versions of the helicopter are equipped with a Rockwell Collins digital glass cockpit, which comes with two multifunction LCD screens/control display units on top of the glass and is night vision compatible. Pilots can see their aircraft’s critical displays without diverting their gaze from the front.
The Little Bird helicopter is being manufactured by McDonnell Douglas. The 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) is currently operating approximately 51 AH-6M and MH-6M Little Birds.
The head of Army special-ops aviation hopes the service’s Future Vertical Lift (FVL) effort will produce a specialized attack helicopter capable of inserting small teams on strategic missions.
Currently, the Army is developing Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) and the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA), along with other airframes in the FVL effort, to give aviators greater range and speed over legacy aircraft such as the UH-60 Black Hawk beginning in 2030.
But Army Special Operations Aviation Command leaders are working with FVL program officials to see if the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft could be modified to carry a small number of operators and serve as a possible replacement for the MH-6 Little Bird, Brig. Gen. Allan Pepin, commander of Army Special Operations Aviation Command, recently told an audience at an Association of the United States Army aviation symposium.
“So right now, if you look at … the attack version [of FVL] we are pursuing, if we could actually mod that to have that assault capability, it would drive down the costs and we wouldn’t have duplicate efforts in [Special Operations Command],” he said.
“We know, for the most part, that SOCOM will be asked to do things for strategic reasons for our nation and for the Future Vertical Lift capability that SOCOM will most likely get in the future; we want to be nested up front, so we don’t increase the modernization efforts after we get an Army common system.”
SOCOM has dedicated future funding to FVL to build in options for specific modifications, so it doesn’t have to “cut holes in aircraft” after they are delivered, said Brig. Gen. Walter Rugen, director of the Army’s Future Vertical Lift Cross Functional Team.
“The work is going to be done on the front end so … SOCOM doesn’t have to modify aircraft,” he said.
The Army expects to receive industry prototypes of the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft in January from the five prototyping contracts the service awarded in April, Rugen said, adding that the service plans to down-select to two companies in March for competitive prototypes of FARA.
A competitive fly-off is planned for 2023, according to Rugen.
Pepin said that SOCOM may have to pursue a longer-term effort to replace the MH-6 if “it turns out that we cannot adjust or modify” the Future Attack Reconnaissance to carry operators into battle.
“If they need a critical capability to do a small assault force infil capability into a defined small space, whether that is doing shipboard operations or in an urban environment, then we will maintain that platform and that will be a long-term build that SOCOM will continue with,” he said.
Other proposed special-ops modifications to the FVL aircraft are likely to be far less challenging, Pepin added.
“We know SOF will have to have an air-refueling requirement,” he said.
Even though the aircraft will go faster and further, special operations aviators in some cases “will have to go through multiple countries to get to a target set,” Pepin said.
“They are going to [configure] that aircraft so all we have to do is open a pre-designed hole and add a refueling probe,” he explained.
Chris Van Buiten, vice president for Sikorsky innovations Lockheed Martin Corporation, said it will be relatively simple to add an in-flight refueling capability to either FVL aircraft design.
Sikorsky, part of Lockheed Martin Corp., and Boeing Co. built the SB>1 Defiant demonstrator for the FVL effort, based on Sikorsky’s X2 coaxial design.
“It offers, I think, a tremendous opportunity for beyond special operations,” Van Buiten said, adding that the capability will enable mission durations that aren’t currently possible.
Maj. Gen. Dave Francis, commander of the service’s Aviation Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker, Alabama, said the conventional Army has not determined whether the FVL aircraft will feature an in-flight refueling capability.
“The goal … is to design the aircraft so you can plug and play those capabilities as required,” he said. “What I think you are going to find in the future is that not everybody is going to get everything. We can’t gold-plate everything.
“As a unit with a specific mission set has a requirement, we will identify those and make sure we have the capacity in the aircraft that is designed to plug that in as required,” Francis said.
Army Special Ops Mulls What’s Next After Little Bird
ATLANTA — The Army’s Special Operations Command owns some of the most impressive military capability in existence, but even the most impressive stuff has a shelf life, so the command is starting to look at replacing its urban, nimble “street fighter” helicopter.
Maj. Gen. Clayton Hutmacher, the deputy commander of US Army Special Operations, said at the Army Aviation Association of America’s Mission Solutions Summit on Saturday that replacing the MH-6 Little Bird light-assault helicopter won’t be easy for a variety of reasons.
“It really comes down to money for us,” Hutmacher said. “If it’s Army common, it’s paid for under … Army dollars, so if we get a Black Hawk from the Army, Army pays for that. What we do to it after we get it, SOCOM pays for that.”
The Army has the luxury of economy-of-scale, according to Hutmacher. The service is able to buy a lot of equipment and drive the price per unit down. “Special operations doesn’t have that luxury.”
When Special Operations needs to replace its Little Bird — which amounts to about 70 helicopters, including spares — going it alone to buy such a small amount wouldn’t be affordable when up-front development costs are factored in, Hutmacher explained.
The Army has no Little Birds in its inventory and does not have a need to procure them based on its current roles and operating concept.
For what Special Operations lacks in budget, it makes up for in agility, being able to procure, beef up what it’s given and get it out into the field quickly, Hutmacher added.
For now, the command is upgrading the Little Bird with a Block III configuration that will expand the service life of the aircraft to 2020 and beyond. But, Hutmacher said, “my personal opinion on this is that we are probably reaching the point where we need to look at a new airplane after Block III.”Sign up for our Early Bird Brief
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It will be critical to “preserve capability we get out of Little Bird,” he said, and trades can’t be made in its size.
Hutmacher hearkened back to the Little Bird’s use in the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993 where “we landed in the street. We land in streets all the time.”
The Little Bird’s rotor diameter, he noted, is 27 feet and 3 inches, and the UH-60 Black Hawk’s is nearly double that.
“I don’t know if it’s realistic to stay in that footprint, but we’ve got to stay well below the footprint of a Black Hawk,” Hutmacher said.
But there are problems with the Little Bird, he noted. For one, the aircraft is so small it has limited range and is even more limited if it is carrying a full complement of special forces. “That drives our basing,” he said.
Referring back to Mogadishu, Hutmacher said the Little Bird had to be flown in and out of the airport, which meant the enemy had eyes on them all the time.
“I think when we take a look at a future Little Bird, what we want to do is improve our ability to stand off farther from a target, that makes it easy for us to maintain the element of surprise and it makes the problem set even more difficult,” Hutmacher said. “The farther away we are, the farther it is for them to defend against us and operational security and maintain tactical surprise is easier.”
The Little Bird is also slow. Typically its speed is about 80 knots and could potentially be pushed to 100 knots. “The future of Little Bird should have airspeed, [it] should be a significant factor in how we approach it,” he said.
And if the Little Bird can be faster, it could allow for changes in the requirement that it must fit into a C-130 aircraft.
“If we are able to get a Little Bird replacement with speeds, I would say, 200 knots or greater, my personal opinion is, we can move away from a C-130 load requirement because we are flying as fast as a C-130,” Hutmacher said. The operators would have more flexibility if it could be transported using a C-17, he added.
Even with his wish list for the aircraft, Hutmacher acknowledged, “fiscally it’s not achievable by ourselves and the Army has got different requirements than SOCOM. We have to work with the Army … and be willing to compromise.”
Aside from traditional budgetary and acquisition woes, the Little Bird’s replacement could be hindered even further by a few things the Army is pursuing that works against Special Operations requirements for a new helicopter. For one, the service retired its Kiowa Warrior helicopter, an aircraft sized between the Little Bird and the Black Hawk.
The Army is also leaning heavily toward replacing its medium-lift aircraft first when it starts building a Future Vertical Lift aircraft expected to start fielding in the 2030s.
There’s been much debate about whether the Army should choose to build a light reconnaissance helicopter first or a medium-lift variant.
Some believed the Army would build a lighter helicopter first to fill the gap left over from when the service decided to retire the Kiowa. The service is filling that gap temporarily by teaming AH-64 Apache Attack helicopters with Shadow unmanned aircraft systems.
But speaking to Defense News at the AAAA summit, Maj. Gen. William Gayler, the Army Aviation Center of Excellence commander at Fort Rucker, said the first variant for FVL would be medium-lift.
Since the program is joint and the Marine Corps and Air Force have much more interest in building the medium-lift helicopter — to be part of a family of systems — the Army thinks it’s the right answer to first field a medium variant, he said.
There are a few attractive options for a Little Bird replacement under development through the Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator (JMR TD) program that will help inform the Army’s requirements for the FVL program of record that is expected to kick off in 2019.
A Sikorsky-Boeing team has been refining Sikorsky’s X2 coaxial rotor technology, which increases the helicopter’s speed to 220 knots and has increased maneuverability and nimble hovering capability. While Defiant, the aircraft designed to fly in the 2017 Army JMR TD flights, is likely too large for special operators, its predecessor, Raider, could potentially fit in the weight class.
And there’s plenty of proof there are other helicopters out there that could, in some way, meet the criteria — many which auditioned in flight tests the last time the Army tried to replace its Kiowa armed scout.
There’s the obvious AH-6 Little Bird from Boeing and aircraft from AgustaWestland and MD Helicopter, as well as Airbus’ LUH-72X+ Lakota and souped-up Kiowa Warriors from Bell Helicopter.
But even if there was something out there that met all the criteria for a new Army Special Operations Little Bird, there’s still the issue of affordability.
“So I think we’ve got to work closely with Army aviation, both on the requirements side and on the acquisition side,” Hutmacher said, “and figure out what is in the art of the possible.”
Brig. Gen. Erik Peterson, commander of Army Special Operations Aviation Command, told Defense News in a brief interview that “we have a strong road map” for Little Bird “that carries us easily 10 to 15 years.”
The command is “keeping our eyes open, continuing to do industry studies, drive science and technology for either unilateral [commercial, off-the-shelf] replacements, a purpose-built unilateral option of some sort, and a combined effort potentially in conjunction with Future Vertical Lift or some other effort that the Army may pursue for light reconnaissance and light attack,” Peterson said. “We are not casting our lot in any single effort at this point.”
The bottom line, he said, “is the 15- to 20-year horizon, we think we will have to do something substantially different and we think that we are at a pretty good place for helping drive that and frame those options.”