Kenya and Lebanon Will Get Little Bird Choppers That Can Carry Up To Six Weapons At Once

Kenya and Lebanon are each set to receive six MD 530-series Little Bird light attack helicopters equipped with a new armament “plank” running through the main cabin that will allow them to carry weapons on up to six different stations at once, two more than on earlier versions. Now, the U.S. government has also approved the sale of five Bell 407GX light attack helicopters to Iraq with the same system.  

MD Helicopters received the orders for the six MD 530Fs for Kenya and the six MD 530Gs for Lebanon on Sept. 27, 2018, and Oct. 1, 2018, respectively. The deals came by way of the U.S. Army, which handed the company a contract in 2017 worth as much as $1.4 billion for as many as 150 Little Birds for subsequent delivery to American allies and partners via the Foreign Military Sales program. On Oct. 4, 2018, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency also announced a potential sale of Bell 407GX helicopters to Iraq, along with ancillary equipment and support services, worth around $82.5 million. All of these helicopters will come with Dillon Aero’s six-position Mission Configurable Aircraft System (MCAS) kits.

The MD 530F and G are among the latest iterations of the Little Bird design, which is an outgrowth of the Vietnam War-era Hughes 369, which the U.S. Army adopted as the OH-6A light scout helicopter. The primary difference between the F and G is that the latter comes standard with a new glass cockpit configuration with digital multi-function displays and an L3 Wescam MX-10D sensor turret. The MX-10D includes visual and infrared full-motion video cameras, as well as a laser designator, allowing the aircraft to employ precision-guided munitions.

These are available as separate add-on options on the 530F, but there is no indication that the helicopters for Kenya will have these features. But both purchase orders include the MCAS kits.

Dillon Aero’s system is one of the latest armament packages for the Little Bird family, which have included two- and four-position weapons arrangements in the past. The MCAS allow for a maximum of six positions, but, as a result, also provides the necessary space to carry stores combinations that might be physically impossible with other systems.

It’s not clear when either Kenya or Lebanon might be able to take full advantage of the system, though. The only examples of six-position configurations Dillon has on its website involve attaching a Common Launch Tube to the tips of the plank. This launcher most commonly associated with the GBU-44/B Viper Strike GPS-assisted laser-guided glide bomb and the AGM-176 Griffin, a munition with a GPS and inertial navigation or laser guidance options that can function as an unpowered glide bomb or a powered missile.

A 3D rendering of Dillon Aero’s Mission Configurable Aircraft System armament kit with weapons on six different stations., Dillon Aero

There is no indication that Kenya or Lebanon plans to purchase these weapons. Unless the Kenyan helicopters subsequently receive an MX-10D or similar sensor system with a target designation capability, they will not be able to employ precision-guided munitions at all.

Instead, Kenya’s 530Fs armament configuration will consist of two FN Herstal HMP 400 gun pods, each containing a .50 caliber M3P machine gun, and seven-tube 70mm M260 rocket pods, according to MD Helicopters. This will be a significant improvement in capability over the Kenyan Army’s existing MD 500 Defenders, which can only carry two stores at a time. Those older aircraft have been supporting Kenya’s operations against Al Qaeda affiliated Al Shabaab terrorists in neighboring Somalia as part of the African Union-led mission in that country.

A Kenyan Army MD 500 Defender in Kismayo, Somalia in 2012., AMISOM

Lebanon’s MD 530Gs will have an almost identical armament configuration, with the notable addition of laser-guided Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System II (APKWS II) rockets, MD Helicopters said in a press release. The Lebanese Air Force’s new A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft are slated to get this capability, as well.

These low-cost precision-guided rockets, combined with the MX-10D sensor turret, will give Lebanon’s helicopters significantly greater capability to engage targets precisely and do so at night. This latter point is especially important in limited conflicts against terrorists and other non-state militant groups, who have historically exploited the cover of darkness to mask their movements.

Though largely obscured by the fighting in neighboring Syria, as well as Iraq, Lebanon has been fighting its own complex campaign against ISIS terrorists along the Syrian border. With that in mind, the United States has stepped up military aid to the small country, including the delivery of the aforementioned A-29s, Bradley armored fighting vehicles, and precision-guided howitzer shells.

There’s similarly no indication that if Iraq plans to use the MCAS kit’s six-position feature if it decides to go ahead with the purchase of the five Bell 407GXs. The prospective sale includes a mix of 7.62mm M240 machine guns, .50 caliber M3P machine guns, .50 caliber GAU-19/B Gatling guns, and M260 rocket pods able to fire APKWS II rockets.  

That deal would help offset the loss of seven older IA-407 variants that the Iraqi Air Force has suffered while fighting ISIS terrorists in the past four years, according to the Defense Security Cooperation Agency. The 407GX, which includes a full glass cockpit and avionics improvements over older 407-series helicopters, would still give Iraq a capability boost over its existing models. Those choppers already feature sensor turrets under the nose and have the ability to employ the laser-guided 70mm rockets, though.

One of Iraq’s existing IA-407 light attack helicopters., via Qualitative Military Edge

Still, the MCAS leaves open the possibility for all three countries to make use of the six-position feature at some point in the future, or simply take advantage of the modularity of the system to carry different types of stores. The plank can also accommodate AGM-114 Hellfire laser-guided missiles, which both Lebanon and Iraq use on AC-208 Combat Caravan light attack aircraft, for instance.

There are still more than 100 potential Little Bird sales to come under the Army’s contract, as well. In addition to the 12 Little Birds for Kenya and Lebanon, another 30 are headed to Afghanistan under that arrangement. It is possible more armed examples with the MCAS could be headed abroad in the near future, further expanding the customer base who might be interested in taking full advantage of the system. El Salvador stands out, in particular, as a country that could be next in line, since its operating aging armed MD 500E types in support of the U.N. mission in Mali and continues to receive substantial assistance from the United States to keep those helicopters flying.

With the MCAS appearing to be an increasingly standard addition in U.S. government-facilitated light attack helicopter sales, it seems likely we’ll be seeing more continues utilizing the system in the future in general. We’ll definitely be keeping our eyes open for an examples of choppers fully armed with a six weapon configuration.

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Joseph Trevithick Avatar

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.