Special Operations Command is hungry for speed enhancements that should come with the Army’s new Future Vertical Lift rotorcraft but that may mean literally leaving its scrappy workhorse multipurpose helicopter behind. The M/AH-6 Little Bird’s relative speed would matter less if SOCOM wasn’t certain the aircraft will remain a vital capability long after FVL aircraft come online in the 2030s.
The M/AH-6 has been continuously upgraded since its introduction in 1980 but is already the slowest of the three aircraft flown by the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, better known as the Night Stalkers. They use the larger MH-60M Black Hawk and MH-47G Chinook aircraft on long-range assault missions, but need the smaller, more agile Little Bird for commando raids and close air support in tight urban spaces, dense jungle landing spots, and in other places a Black Hawk can’t fit. These types also work together in composite units tailored to each mission.
The Little Bird, the ‘street fighter’ of the military rotary-wing universe, with its comparatively slow speed will become even more of a glaring liability when the Future Attack Recon Aircraft (FARA) and Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) come online around 2034, Geoffrey Downer, SOCOM’s program executive officer for rotary-wing aviation, said May 18.
“Our little birds fly at 90 knots,” Downer said at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa, Florida. FARA “gives us the capability to fly more than twice that speed at 180 knots. For FLRAA, 230 knots is the requirement on that, which is significant over the 110, 120 knots that we fly right now” in the MH-60M Black Hawk.
“My big concern is we’re modernizing our fleet to flying at 200-plus knots and I’ve got an aircraft that flies 80-90 knots, so it’s not going to be able to keep up,” he added.
Little Birds, sometimes called the ‘Killer Egg,’ come in two configurations, although any H-6 in the 160th inventory can be converted for either use. The AH-6 performs attack and close air support missions with a variety of weapons. The MH-6 is an unarmed version that carries troops, internally and externally, to an objective. SOCOM needs both types for future missions
The A/MH-6 fleet is in a Block 2.2 configuration that includes survivability upgrades, with crash-worthy seats and fuel tanks. It now has a six-bladed main rotor system for added performance and a host of other modifications and upgrades.
Next year SOCOM will start resetting the aircraft with all-new zero-time airframes built by Boeing. The Block 3.0 upgrade program also includes a performance enhancement kit with a larger-diameter, composite rotor system to provide additional performance and a new cockpit upgrade to “give us functionality similar to what the bigger aircraft have,” Downer said. In 2024, improved electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensors will be installed.
“We’ve received 11 shells from the vendor, we’ve received the kits, and now we’ve started the process … of assembling those aircraft,” Downer said.
SOCOM needs a small, nimble rotorcraft that can carry four to six troops and roll on and off a C-130 air transport, Downer said. The Little Bird, with its 27-foot rotor diameter, is also ideal for launching assaults in confined urban spaces where U.S. commandos increasingly train and fight.
Neither of the current FARA concept aircraft — Bell’s 360 Invictus conventional tandem-cockpit helicopter and Sikorsky’s Raider X compound coaxial design — are guaranteed to fill the Little Bird’s multi-faceted role. Sikorsky says Raider’s weapon stowage bay behind the cockpit can be reconfigured to carry troops, but the Bell Invictus cannot. Both FARA competitors feature a 40-foot rotor diameter — more than 10-feet wider than the M/A-H6 — and may be too large for some SOF missions, Downer said. Some versions of the M/AH-6 will remain in service out to 2038 and beyond, according to a detailed slide showing SOCOM’s rotorcraft aviation modernization plan.
“We kind of pushed the limits in terms of what we can get out of the Little Bird and we’re trying to determine what that next aircraft looks like,” Downer said. “We might continue to build off of that platform or there’s another one that we look at.”
In 2034, the same year it will field FARA, SOCOM will introduce the Block 4 configuration for Little Bird, or some version of that aircraft. Downer told Defense News that a hybrid engine could boost the Little Bird’s speed by slowing the rotor blades during cruise flight to reduce drag, but no such upgrade was noted on SOCOM’s aviation modernization timeline.
“We’re talking 13 years from now,” Downer said. “We’re working with the Army and what the number of those aircraft are going to be that we receive from them. But we know that for this configuration we don’t expect to get a 100 percent fleet on the FARA because the 40-foot rotor is significantly different than the smaller rotor that we have. We need this street fighter. We need this aircraft that can rapidly deploy, so we will have some mixed fleet going forward.”
Less up in the air is what will become of the MH-60M Black Hawk and MH-47G Chinook. Both will receive a next-generation tactical radio system in 2023. Silent Knight terrain-following radars are being installed on both the MH-60M and MH-47G. Terrain following radar allows the helicopters to hug the earth at high speed and in all weather conditions, day or night. The new enhanced radar will replace existing types, and integration of the system began last year and is ongoing.
SOCOM plans to retrofit its Black Hawks with the Army’s improved turbine engine, a drop-in replacement for the General Electric T700 that reduces fuel consumption while improving reliability at a lower cost, around 2026.
The first SOF unit equipped with the FLRAA aircraft — either the Bell V-280 Valor advanced tiltrotor or the Sikorsky-Boeing Defiant X compound coaxial helicopter — is planned for 2034. That aircraft should be able to comfortably assume the mission profile of SOCOM’s MH-60M helicopters, Downer said.
“We’re also 13 years out before we’re going to start to see these aircraft,” he said. “We’re working with the Army to figure out what that composition is, but we believe we’ll have a much larger percentage of those platforms — the FLRAA aircraft versus the Blackhawks — if not 100% going forward.”
There is no plan at the moment to develop a heavy lift FVL platform to replace the Army’s Chinooks. Conventional forces and SOCOM will be flying the tandem-rotor helicopters into the 2060s and are preparing a suite of structural and performance upgrades to keep them relevant for another 40 years. SOCOM is ahead of the Army in upgrading its MH-47G Chinooks to Block II configuration, with redesigned fuel tanks, stiffer airframe, and improved drivetrain. That work will carry SOCOM out to 2029, at which point plans are to introduce Block “X” upgrades, according to Downer.
U.S. special operations forces are used to riding the Big Army’s coattails on aviation programs, taking a few airframes from what conventional services buy in bulk and heavily modifying them to suit special operations requirements. With FVL, SOCOM has been deeply involved with molding requirements so its needs are at least considered during development.
“We’re in a unique situation where we can actually influence the design,” Downer said. “We’re nested in very tightly with the Army to help influence and factor in the SOCOM requirements. We’re actually conducting studies right now with these four vendors, the two for FARA and two for FRAA, to look at what we can do to incorporate our SOF-unique requirements.”
In the end, FVL may address some of SOCOM’s needs, but not some of its niche mission profiles. Similar issues prompted the 160th SOAR stick with the H-6 platform after conventional Army aviation units moved on from the airframe to advanced versions of the OH-58 armed scout. Those aircraft suited large-scale aviation missions, but were too large and sluggish for snatch-and-grab commando raids, so SOCOM decided to go it alone upgrading the M/AH-6 for its own needs.
With the Army buying hundreds of each FVL airframe to replace its UH-60 Black Hawks and about half of its AH-64 Apache helicopters, its service-level aviation requirements will almost certainly override SOF-specific mission needs. SOCOM may have to again look elsewhere for its street-fighting helicopter beyond 2034.
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