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Congress Concerned About AH/MH-6 Little Bird’s Future

SOCOM to continue upgrades while looking for replacement around 2030

As Congress wrangles over the National Defense Authorization Act, which President Barack Obama has threatened to veto, one of the provisions remaining is a directive to the Secretary of Defense to lay out the way forward for U.S. Special Operations Command’s AH/MH-6 Little Bird fleet.

Under Section 142 of House bill H.R. 1735, he is directed to: “…submit to the congressional defense committees a strategy for replacing A/MH-6 Mission Enhanced Little Bird aircraft to meet the rotary-wing, light attack, reconnaissance requirements particular to special operations.”

“They’re in a critical design review [CDR] for the Block 3 aircraft now, and that in fact will not replace, but will refresh that fleet, provide some more capability, but also provide some legs, life into that fleet to stretch us out into the 2020s,” Vannoy said.

This includes, under Section 142:

(1) An updated schedule and display of programmed A/MH–6 Block 3.0 modernization and upgrades, showing usable life of the fleet, and the anticipated service life extensions of all A/MH–6 platforms.

(2) A description of current and future rotary-wing, light attack, reconnaissance requirements and platforms particular to special operations, including key performance parameters of future platforms.

(3) The feasibility of military department-common platforms satisfying future rotary-wing, light attack, reconnaissance requirements particular to special operations.

(4) The feasibility of commercially available platforms satisfying future rotary-wing, light attack, reconnaissance requirements particular to special operations.

(5) The anticipated funding requirements for the special operation forces major force program for the development and procurement of an A/MH–6 replacement platform if military department-common platforms described in paragraph (3) are not available or if commercially available platforms described in paragraph (4) are leveraged.

Col. John M. Vannoy, SOCOM’s Program Executive Officer (PEO) for Rotary Wing, said at the recent Special Operations Forces Industry Conference (SOFIC), that in the near to medium term SOCOM will continue to upgrade the fleet of 51 AH/MH-6 Little Birds rather than replacing it.

Little Birds drop off

Little Birds drop USASOC soldiers on a rooftop during a Capabilities Exercise in April 2012. The Little Bird has been incrementally improved over the years. USASOC photo

“They’re in a critical design review [CDR] for the Block 3 aircraft now, and that in fact will not replace, but will refresh that fleet, provide some more capability, but also provide some legs, life into that fleet to stretch us out into the 2020s,” Vannoy said.

“All 51 … will have a new structure airframe; we’ll balk more performance out of the Rolls-Royce engine; we’ll throw in a new cockpit that will look very similar to a smaller lighter version of our Rockwell CASS cockpits in the rest of our aircraft… ,” he said, adding that this was “both an approach to sustain this further out to the 2020-2030 time frame – where you see that MLBX, whatever it may be, what’s next – to sustain it, but also give us more capability.”

The AH/MH-6 fleet has been used by the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (160th SOAR) since it began operations under a different designation in 1980. The Little Birds were originally based on the OH-6 Cayuse Light Observation Helicopter, popularly called the Loach. Later Little Birds have been based on the very similar MD Helicopters MD 530 airframe, but as the years have gone by, weight has gone up and performance correspondingly down. And while the Little Bird has acquired a measure of fame, the fleet has been worked hard.

While SOCOM has its own Title 10 budget, it remains dependent on the bigger services to leverage much of its equipment, and the cancellation of the Army’s Armed Aerial Scout program left SOCOM without a new light helicopter program on which it might base a future Little Bird replacement. So the command is working to extend the life of the fleet as well as upgrade it through a block upgrade strategy. While Block 2.0 upgrades have addressed a range of issues, from fuel capacity to the strength of the landing skids, Block 2.2 upgrades are less extensive.

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