- For 40 years, the Little Birds AH-6 and MH-6 have achieved legendary status in the special operations community.
- Helicopters have proven capable of attacking targets and carrying commandos on all kinds of missions.
- But the military and the special ops community will soon have to decide if the little bird has life left.
The United States Special Operations Command is trying to decide what to do with the Little Bird, one of its oldest but most legendary special operations helicopters.
The 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, also known as the “Night Stalkers”, uses two variations of the Little Bird: the AH-6, which is the attack / assault version, and the MH-6, which is the assault / assault version. transport. egg-shaped chopper.
The AH-6 conducts close-air precision support and assaults in support of US special operations units. The MH-6, which is the unarmed version, transports the commandos to the target.
Their main clients are the special mission units of the Joint Special Operations Command – the Army Delta Force and the Navy SEAL Team 6 – and the 75th Army Ranger Regiment.
An egg you don’t want to play with
The AH-6 can carry several weapon systems, including the M134 Minigun, which can fire 6,000 rounds per minute; a Gatling GAU-19 .50 caliber machine gun; 2.75-inch Hydra 70 rockets; and even the Hellfire air-to-surface and Stinger air-to-air missiles.
What makes the Little Bird extremely valuable is its small size and agility. In the hands of experienced pilots, the Little Bird can land almost anywhere or target almost anything with impunity.
The assault / transport version can surgically insert and extract troops, provide a great aerial platform for snipers, and even transport motorcycles.
The Night Stalkers exploit around 50 small birds of both variations.
âIt’s an amazing helicopter, very manoeuvrable and fully acrobatic. It’s cool for a helicopter. Flying the AH-6 is like driving a Ferrari – no other helicopter compares,â he told Insider. retired Chief Warrant Officer 4 Greg Coker.
Coker, a Night Stalker pilot and author of “Death Waits in the Dark”, served for 30 years and completed 11 combat deployments.
“Both [AH-6 and MH-6] are small aircraft that can be transported quickly using many different means. No other helicopter can do it. The AH-6 can perform multiple attacks due to its maneuverability, unlike the Apache, Cobra or Hind, “Coker said, referring to other US attack helicopters and their Russian counterpart. , the Mi-24 Hind.
The Little Bird sports a digital glass cockpit, compatible with night vision, which allows pilots to monitor their critical displays without looking down.
An uncertain future
Discussions about the retirement of the venerable Little Bird are not new. In 2019, a SOCOM acquisition manager outlined plans to upgrade or retire the Little Birds by the mid-2020s.
In the early 2000s, the Little Bird fleet underwent a modernization as part of the Mission Enhanced Little Bird program, which upgraded the rotor, enlarged the doors and improved the landing gear.
Later this year, the Night Stalkers will receive the first Block III version of the Little Bird, which will feature a new airframe, better fuel efficiency and a more powerful rotor. These updates will reset the Little Bird’s structural life clock.
But SOCOM still wonders whether to further upgrade the helicopter with a potential version of Block IV or replace it completely with a variant of the Army’s Future Vertical Lift program, which aims to upgrade all light, medium transport. and heavy army. choppers.
The army plans to award a contract for its next helicopters at the end of 2024. SOCOM could then take another year to decide between the modernization of the Little Bird or the pursuit of a new helicopter, according to Aviation Week.
“I don’t think there is an airframe that can replace the MD-530 series helicopters,” Coker said, referring to the helicopters the AH-6 and MH-6 are based on.
âWe upgraded in 2003 from the AH-6J to the AH-6M, adding a glass cockpit, a four-bladed tail rotor and a six-bladed main rotor – the thing is a beast! Coker added.
A veteran of special operations
The Little Bird is now an old platform with basic technology compared to other advanced aircraft in use, but it has been at the forefront of US special operations for almost 40 years.
With AH-6s providing cover, MH-6 helicopters carried Delta Force operators and Rangers to target during the 1983 invasion of Grenada.
During the 1989 invasion of Panama, the Little Birds Night Stalkers evacuated CIA agent Kurt Muse and his Delta Force rescuers from Modelo prison in Panama City.
During the Battle of Mogadishu – also known as the “Black Hawk Down” incident – Little Birds saw much action and played a key role in the survival of the beleaguered Delta Force Operators and Rangers.
At the start of the war in Afghanistan, the Night Stalkers flying the AH-6 carried out impressive missions, hunting down Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters on their own, often spending all the ammunition in their helicopters and having to use their weapons on their own. personal fire, even grenades. lobbed from the cockpit, against the enemy.
In Iraq, the Little Bird was the go-to choice for direct action raids in Iraqi cities due to its flexibility and maneuverability, allowing Night Stalkers to place operators virtually anywhere.
During the Battle of Haditha Dam in 2003, AH-6s supporting a Delta Force and Ranger task force against vastly superior Iraqi forces detonated their rotor blades but continued to fly.
âOur team leaders put 100 mph duct tape on the blade and told us to fly and watch it. And it worked. It’s a tough plane,â Coker said.
The Little Birds, especially the MH-6, are regularly seen buzzing around buildings in major American cities during exercises, often causing confusion and even concern among civilians. But this training is essential to maintain the pilot’s advantage in counterterrorism and hostage rescue missions.
The aging Little Bird may seem outdated in the era of fifth-generation stealth fighters and unmanned aerial vehicles – a variation of Little Bird has even been modified to fly like a drone – but its effectiveness has not been diminished by its years, and it remains universally appreciated by its pilots and crews and by the commandos on the ground.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a veteran of the Hellenic Army (national service with the 575th Navy Battalion and Army HQ) and graduate of Johns Hopkins University.