An AIM-120 On A AH-1 Cobra? Not Impossible, Say Marines
The Marine Corps is embarking on an ambitious upgrade program to keep its H-1 helicopters relevant to future fights.
The Marine Corps and helicopter manufacturer Bell are embarking on an ambitious electrical systems upgrade program for the UH-1Y Venom and AH-1Z Viper helicopters to boost their onboard power, enabling a host of future weapons and capabilities.
Although the Marine Corps recently took delivery of its last AH-1Z Viper attack helicopter and hasn’t bought a new UH-1Y since 2018, the service will fly them for decades to come. Col. Nathan Marvel, commanding officer of Marine Aircraft Group 39 and one of two pilots who flew the final 'Zulu' from Bell’s plant in Amarillo, Texas, to Camp Pendleton, California, in November, said his son would likely fly H-1s if he joins the Marines.
“My son is six years old right now, and I would not be surprised at all that if he chooses a career in the Marine Corps that he'll fly that same helo that I flew home from Amarillo about a month ago,” Marvel told The War Zone in an interview. “I think we got 20 years of life left in these machines and they're pretty awesome.”
To keep both helicopter models relevant for the next two decades, the Marine Corps plans to integrate more technologies and weapons onto the 'Yankee' and 'Zulu,' Marvel said. The three-pronged goal of the upgrades are to enhance survivability, lethality and interoperability, in no particular order.
Planned survivability enhancements include the installation of a distributed-aperture infrared countermeasures system to protect against incoming missiles and an AN/APR-39 digital radar warning receiver, Marvel said.
“In the fight that we're getting into, the fight that we've been in, you cannot be interoperable and you cannot be lethal if you are not survivable,” Marvel said.
While the AH-1Z already bristles with weapons and can carry an impressive array of munitions, more are planned, to include some of the most advanced air-to-air missiles in the U.S. arsenal.
AH-1Zs have already demonstrated radar- and laser-guided modes with the hugely flexible AGM-179 Joint Air-to-Ground Missile, or JAGM, which “brings us a great deal of maneuver[ability] and flexibility with this missile and being able to fire it passively,” according to Marvel. The H-1s have also demonstrated their ability to engage surface ships and performed offensive and defensive counter-air missions against surrogate enemy unmanned aerial systems (UAS) with a variety of machine guns, including GAU-17 miniguns, .50 caliber and 20mm machine guns.
The Marines have also integrated the AIM-9 Sidewinder missile onto the AH-1Z. Marvel said the more-advanced AIM-9X, which is a substantial upgrade to the AIM-9M currently on AH-1Z, is coming next. That variant introduces thrust-vectoring control, an improved imaging infrared seeker compatible with helmet-mounted displays, allowing a pilot to lock onto a target far off the aircraft's centerline simply by looking at it. In its latest datalink-equipped form, known as the AIM-9X Block II, these "net-enabled" weapons can leverage targeting data from other aircraft, surface ships and Marines on the ground through the military's joint battlefield networking systems. It also has an enhanced capability to engage cruise missiles, which the Navy and Marine Corps are certain to encounter in any war with China.
“You are now carrying eight net-enabled AIM-9X counter-cruise missile weapons on AH-1s that are forward deployed,” Marvel said.
None of those upgrades will be possible without a substantial upgrade to the electrical power system aboard the H-1. Bell and the Marine Corps have planned out how to increase the helicopters’ onboard power by about 200 percent through what they are calling the Structural Improvement and Electrical Power Upgrade, or SIEPU, program. Aside from the obvious performance enhancements, Marines appreciate the acronym is pronounced “see-poo,” according to Michael Deslatte, vice president of H-1 programs at Bell.
SIEPU includes drivetrain and dynamic component enhancements and rotorbrake improvements common to both H-1 variants. Other technologies included in the effort, as listed in the 2022 Marine Corps Aviation Plan, are as follows:
- Intrepid Tiger II
- AH-1Z Joint Air to Ground Missile
- Embedded GPS/Inertial Navigation
- System (EGI) upgrade
- BRITE Star Laser Spot Tracker (UH)
- Target Sight System Laser Spot Tracker (AH)
- Deployable Mission Rehearsal Trainer
- MCAS Futenma simulators
- Helmet improvements
- PRU-70/AE vest replacement
- Wireless intercom system
“You have to have sufficient power for all of these new systems,” Deslatte said during a recent media tour of Bell’s headquarters at Fort Worth, Texas, that The War Zone attended. “There is a pathway inside of the SIEPU upgrade to enable AIM-9X integration ... SEIPU is foundational for future capabilities on the H-1, and AIM-9X is absolutely one of those future capabilities that we are tracking, although it's not an active integration plan today.”
SIEPU is similar in scope to what Bell has done for the V-22 through the Nacelle Improvement Program. Ospreys are returned to the manufacturer in Amarillo, where their nacelles – the tilting portions on the end of the wings that house the engines – are disassembled and repopulated with new components that are more reliable and easier to maintain.
To jumpstart the SIEPU program, one AH-1Z and UH-1Y each will travel to Bell's Amarillo Assembly Center in 2023 to undergo the upgrades, Deslatte said.
Marvel said the SIEPU effort was a “huge engineering upgrade” that underpins all of the Marine Corps’ plans for what he still refers to as the Cobra and Huey, meaning the evolutionary descendants of the AH-1 Cobra and UH-1 Huey. Other upgrades include introducing a more powerful data processor that can handle the information fed to the aircraft from deployed weapons, datalinks, onboard sensors, and a new ethernet backbone, Marvel said.
“You can hang exquisite things on H-1s now because you have the ability to onboard and offboard them. They can be payload agnostic. They can be net-enabled,” he added. “It’s not outside the realm of the possible — and I’m on the fringes of craziness here — it would not be unheard of to put an AIM-120 on a Z. Or how about an exquisite jamming pod that is not traditionally carried on an H-1? Now we're able to do electronic protection on top of electronic attack and electronic support as we build our electromagnetic capability in the H-1.”
The AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM), typically carried by fighter jets, would be an unheard-of air-to-air capability for a rotorcraft. Primarily a beyond-visual-range missile, the AIM-120 is capable of "fire-and-forget" engagements, and is also capable of engaging targets at closer range.
Anticipating a showdown with China in the Pacific, the Marine Corps envisions forward-deploying its Cobras and Hueys at bases, on ships, and elsewhere across the vast Pacific Ocean, Marvel said. With these new capabilities, the H-1 will take on more missions within the Marine Air-Ground Task Force, including maritime air support, offensive air support, reconnaissance, counter reconnaissance, scout, anti-scouting, and strike, among others, Marvel said.
As noted earlier, weapons like the latest AIM-120s are net enabled, meaning they can be fired by a helicopter and receive targeting information from third-party sources like F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, ships, or ground radar systems, or really any source plugged into what Marvel called the "kill web." The addition of Link 16 to the H-1 platform allows it to exchange targeting data and other information with these platforms in near real-time.
With 85 percent commonality between the Yankee and Zulu, it is an excellent candidate for deployment to austere, forward locations — where counter-cruise missile capability could prove especially helpful. It also is the least expensive aircraft per flight hour with the highest readiness rates in the Marine Corps aviation stable, he said.
“We fire the majority of the ordinance that the Marine Corps shoots in a year, and we fly the majority of the hours that the Marine Corps flies in a year,” Marvel said. “When you talk about sustaining them forward, I don't have to go back to get parts. If I need to cannibalize, I can. If I need to build Hueys out for the next day, I can take an engine out of a Cobra and put it in a Huey. I can take a tail rotor blade off a Cobra and put it on a Huey. I can take the drive shaft off a Huey and put it into a Cobra.”
Even with an ever-dwindling fleet of H-1 aircraft – Marvel said the Marine Corps is down to about 284 total helicopters – the proposition of keeping them in operation for decades with the expected upgrades seems a prudent investment. That’s especially so for a Marine Corps that traditionally has had to do more with less funding than its larger sister services.
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