Half Of Night Stalker Black Hawks, Little Birds Replaced With High-Speed Types By 2030s
The Army’s elite 160th SOAR is set for a major transition, but it will retain some MH-60s and AH/MH-6s for certain missions.
The U.S. Army’s elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment is expecting to replace more than 50 percent of its MH-60 Black Hawk and AH/MH-6 Little Bird fleets starting in the early 2030s. Special operations-specific variants of a new Bell tilt-rotor aircraft the Army is acquiring and of the service’s still-to-be-decided advanced armed scout helicopter are set to supplant significant numbers of MH-60s and AH/MH-6s, respectively.
At least some versions of the Little Bird, possibly including an advanced hybrid-electric derivative, and of the Black Hawk are still expected to remain in service due to the niche capabilities they offer U.S. special operations forces.
Geoffrey Downer, head of U.S. Special Operations Command’s (SOCOM) Program Executive Office for Rotary Wing (PEO-RW), provided details on the future of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment’s helicopter fleets to The War Zone and other others at a briefing at an annual conference now known as SOF Week yesterday. In addition to Black Hawks and Little Birds, the 160th – known as the Night Stalkers – also operates MH-47 Chinook helicopters. It is also worth noting that the Night Stalkers’ Little Birds can be configured for the light attack role, where they are referred to as AH-6s, or configured as light transports, which are designated MH-6s. Its MH-60s are primarily transports, but can also be configured as more heavily armed gunships known as Direct Action Penetrators (DAP).
As it stands now, the Army has started developing its requirements for a successor to its CH-47s, which will directly inform what happens to the special operations Chinooks, but is still very early on in that process. The situations regarding the Army’s plans to replace its UH-60 Black Hawks and to acquire new armed scout helicopters are very different.
In December 2022, the Army picked a derivative of Bell’s V-280 Valor tilt-rotor aircraft as the winner of its Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) competition. A protest against that contract award by a member of the losing team, Sikorsky, was rejected in April. The FLRAA aircraft will replace at least a significant portion of the Army’s non-special operations Black Hawk fleet.
The service is expecting to pick a winning design in its Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) armed scout helicopter competition before the end of next year. There are concerns that delays with the acquisition of engines for these helicopters, which are coming through the separate Improved Turbine Engine Program (ITEP), could hold up progress on FARA.
Regardless, the 160th expects to “receive that aircraft [FLRAA] from the Army and we're currently doing studies to look at the modifications that we need to make to do it from a SOF configuration,” SOCOM’s Downer explained. The FARA, “that's going to be very important to us because as we replace the Little Bird. It [The Little Bird] only flies 90 knots, so it'll [FARA] give us critical speed that we need.”
The Army wants whatever it picks as the winning FARA design to have a top speed of at least around 180 knots. Bell’s 360 Invictus and Sikorsky’s Raider X are in the running for that contract.
“When these FARA and FLRAA aircrafts start coming into SOCOM in the early 2030s timeframe, and we get those into our fleet… we will have replaced over 50 percent of our fleet with those platforms with the numbers the Army... is planning on giving to us,” according to Downer.
The 160th transitioning away, even in part, from MH-60s and AH/MH-6s will give the unit a significantly different look. As Downer said with regard to the Little Bird replacement plans specifically, this will give Army special operations aviators a significant boost in speed. The V-280-based FLRAA will offer a major increase in range, as well, compared to the Black Hawk. As The War Zone has noted in the past, range and speed are set to be critical factors for U.S. military aviation elements, broadly, in any future major conflict. Being able to cross long distances quickly could be especially important in a conflict in the broad expanses of the Pacific. That theater is especially challenging for traditional rotary-wing assets that lack range and fly at comparatively slow speed.
The FLRAA and FARA designs are expected to have improved survivability and other advanced capabilities, as well.
“The Night Stalkers are adapting and evolving to meet the needs of today's environments” which include “new multi-domain threats, a volatile global environment, weapons of mass destruction, space and cyber effects, integrated air defenses and layered anti-access/area denial systems,” the narrator of a video Downer played during the briefing yesterday explained. After decades now of focusing on counter-terrorism operations in permissive environments, “the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment is ready to answer the nation’s call once more, in any domain, arriving anywhere, any time.”
This all being said, Downer stressed that the 160th is expected to continue operating at least a pocket fleet of Little Birds and Black Hawks well into the foreseeable future. For special operations forces, in particular, these helicopters offer niche platforms that could be better suited to certain scenarios than their future FLRAA and FARA alternatives. For one, FLRAA and FARA aircraft are bigger than the MH-60 and the AH/MH-6s, respectively. This limits how it might be possible to deploy them, including within larger cargo aircraft or certain ships, and impose other kinds of major operational limitations, especially with regard to where they might be able to land. How Bell's FARA offering might be able to take over for the MH-6 as a small personnel transport is also unclear.
The 160th is notably the only remaining operator of Little Bird helicopters anywhere within the U.S. military, at least publicly, in large part because of their very compact, adaptable, agile, and multi-functional design.
“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," SOCOM's Downer had explained at last year's iteration of the SOF Week conference, then known as the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference (SOFIC). "We need this street fighter. We need this aircraft that can rapidly deploy, so we will have some mixed fleet going forward.”
Multiple MH-6s can be transported by a single C-130 and be rolled out and flying within minutes, not hours, upon arrival.
Beyond that, the 160th, as well as other top-secret U.S. military special operations aviation units, have a long history of operating small numbers of unique or otherwise specialized helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft to meet niche requirements. With this in mind, the Night Stalkers could very well acquire more advanced derivatives of the helicopters they already operate in the future, too.
“We've actually done some studies, or the PEO has done some studies in the past, working with DARPA to identify [new] configurations,” SOCOM’s Downer said yesterday while speaking specifically about U.S. military-wide efforts to explore aviation capabilities that use propulsion systems that rely less on hydrocarbon fuels. “We've looked at the Little Bird, we figured out how can we reconfigure that platform to accommodate a hybrid electric configuration, and I'll touch on that in a minute in terms of benefits.”
Downer explained that commercially-available all-electric rotary-wing designs that are in development now, including ones that the U.S. Air Force is testing as part of its Agility Prime project, do not meet existing special operations requirements. He said that SOCOM has looked into platforms like this, but that the types it has seen so far are too limited in terms of their ability to hover for sustained periods of time and the total number of personnel they can carry.
“So, what we're looking to do is we're looking to evolve our existing aircraft and go hybrid electric. We're starting a program with DARPA in 24 [Fiscal Year 2024]. We're going to go out with a limited competition to take the 530 - we've actually acquired the aircraft - and what can be done to reconfigure the aircraft with hybrid electric [power],” he said. “The studies that we've done show that you can get anywhere from 25 to 100 percent increase in speed. So, if I'm flying in at 90 knots now, I can get 170-180 knots. That's huge."
The "530" Downer referred to is the Hughes 530 helicopter family, now produced by MD Helicopters. The 160th's current generation Little Birds are related to the 530 design, but Boeing is the prime contractor for those helicopters.
“It gives us an ability to have a platform that can keep pace with the other aircraft that we're going to be receiving from the Army with the FARA and FLRAA,” the head of SOCOM’s PEO-RW continued. “Or we can get anywhere between 25 to 75 percent increase in range.”
These claims are stunning to hear. Whether they will materialize is another story. If they come anywhere near those figures, that would be a massive enhancement.
Whatever the 160th SOAR’s final fleet mix looks like in the end, the unit is clearly set for a major transition in its core aircraft in the next decade. And this transition is really a necessity at this point. Just the range limitations alone common in traditional rotary-wing aircraft will make the application of the Night Stalker's unique abilities less relevant in potential future peer conflicts. With a mixed fleet of M/AH-6s, MH-60s, FLARA and FARA aircraft, and the MH-47, the famed unit will be far better equipped to confront challenging scenarios, including long-range anti-access ones, than they are today.
Howard Altman contributed to this story.
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