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With Armed Aerial Scout delay, Special Operators aim to upgrade venerable MH-6M Little Bird

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Tampa, 17 May 2013

Officials from the Special Operations Command’s Program Executive Office for Rotary Wing (SOCOM PEO RW) recently outlined their plans for the “Block III” updating/upgrading SOF’s fleet of A/HM-6M Little Bird helicopters.

Introduced in 1960, fifty-one upgraded models of the Vietnam-era “killer eggs” constitute SOF’s attack and reconnaissance helicopter fleet to this day.

Looking forward, SOCOM knows both that it needs to leverage an existing Military Service platform (for reasons based more on economics than interoperability), and that it requires a 200+ knot helicopter to meet its mission profile.

With these constraints in mind, SOCOM has been watching very closely the “Big Army” deliberations relative to the Armed Aerial Scout (AAS), a system that the Army needs to replace its venerable OH-58D scout helicopter fleet. 

Because SOF seeks a A/MH-6M Little Bird replacement capable of flying at 200-plus knots, of particular concern to special operators is the type of system that the Army elects to buy.  For this reason, PEO RW officials made clear to DSJ, SOF operators were heartened by the very recent announcement by Army leadership that last year’s AAS Voluntary Flight Demonstrations (VFDs) did not reveal an existing platform capable of meeting “Big Army” needs and that the Service, when it moves forward with AAS, will either: (a) do a Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) to the existing OH-58D fleet; or (b) undertake a new start development of a “next-generation” aircraft. 

While SOF officials note that the OH-58 is too large and too slow to meet their needs (irrespective of what a SLEP provides), they hope – and are clearly informing the internal Army debate – that the Service choses a “next-generation” development for AAS, if and when that program finally emerges.  Failing that, they note, SOF will look to whatever “light” helicopter emerges from the even hazier Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program. 

Little Bird – Block III

But SOF clearly can’t wait for AAS or for FVL-Light to emerge and PEO RW officils have laid plans for the Block III “incremental upgrade” to the Little Bird aircraft that SOF operators have been flying for three decades. 

Currently, PEO-RW is funding the incorporation of upgraded crashworthy seats into the 51-aircraft fleet and performing study work (through 2016) to determine the specific elements of the Block III improvements. 

PEO RW believes that the MH-6M can fly through 2025-2030 given requisite upgrades.  Block III will focus on restoring the Little Bird’s structural performance and safety margins, both of which have degraded over time as the airframe has gained weight.  Program officials note that Block III will include three major elements:

·   Powerplant – upgrading the engine (there is no intent to change from engine OEM Rolls Royce);

·      Main and tail rotors – upgrading these rotors and structural components will be done by OEM Boeing; and

·      Cockpit – upgrades to the cockpit from existing off-the-shelf industry offerings to enhance situational awareness while significantly decreasing weight will be a full and open competition to capture the best value.

PEO RW anticipates that Block III upgrades will commence in 2016-17.  Depending on the funding made available and the cost of the SLEP itself, Block III will likely be a four-year program to upgrade 10-15 aircraft per year.  The pacing factors are not only funding, but also sustaining combat power… as SOCOM can have only 3-5 aircraft out of the fleet at any time.  

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