160th SOAR Night Stalkers Testing Arctic, Desert Vinyl Camo Wraps As Global Missions Evolve

The U.S. Army’s elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), better known as the Night Stalkers, has been experimenting with Arctic and desert camouflage wraps for its helicopters in addition to a maritime-focused multi-tone blue scheme. Using wraps made from plastic films, typically vinyl, first popularized in the automotive sector, offers a lower cost and less time-consuming way to apply these schemes as required than traditional paint processes.

In terms of the specific schemes the 160th has been testing, the Arctic region is of steadily growing strategic significance. Despite a shift in focus toward preparing for a high-end conflict with China in the Pacific, American forces remain heavily committed in the Middle East, as well.

Additional details about the 160th’s exploration of new camouflage schemes and processes for applying them came to our attention after U.S. Army Special Operations Aviation Command (USASOAC) released pictures of MH-6 Little Birds wearing the blue maritime scheme last week. Army Col. Roger Waleski, commander of the 160th, made brief comments about this work during a presentation at the Army Aviation Association of America’s Army Aviation Mission Solutions Summit in April 2023.

A Night Stalker MH-6M wearing the multi-tone blue scheme the 160th has been experimenting with. US Army

“Within the past couple years, the 160th SOAR has also been experimenting with various types of camo wrapping for our airframes,” Waleski said. “We developed airworthiness releases for our aircraft to be camo-wrapped for both Arctic and desert environments.”

Wraps have been in use in the aviation sector for years now after first gaining traction in the automotive world. They are often “promoted commercially as an alternative to the traditional respray of larger aircraft for rebranding and livery change purposes,” according to aviation safety firm Litson and Associates (L&A).

“There are many claimed benefits which include speed of application, versatility of design, durability, cost, protection from the elements and weight-saving,” L&A’s website adds. “However, there are also safety concerns, which include extreme temperature variations, peeling, bubbling, and aircraft corrosion.”

Within the commercial and individual private aviation sectors, there is also debate about the application, as well.

When it comes to military aircraft, there are a host of additional considerations that could easily change the calculus. The highly advanced helicopters the 160th flies are absolutely festooned with antennas and other external bits and bobs, many of which cannot be painted at all due to how they function, which can only add to the complexity of applying new schemes of any kind. Helicopters, in general, fly slower than commercial jets, which could reduce the wear and tear a wrap might experience. This all, in turn, could make wraps a very attractive alternative, especially for the application of camouflage on a more temporary basis.

In his presentation last year, Waleski included a picture of an Arctic camouflaged wrapped Night Stalker MH-60 Black Hawk, seen at the top of this story. From what can be seen in that image, the scheme looks to be predominantly white with what appear to be gray patches. It may also be digitized with gray markings. Certain areas and external features are left entirely uncovered. Where and when the picture of the Black Hawk, which also has “snow shoes” fitted to its landing gear, was taken is unknown.

A close-up of the nose-end of the Arctic-camouflaged Night Stalker MH-60 showing what look to be gray patches on top of the base white and some areas without any camouflage treatment at all. US Army via AAAA

Waleski’s briefing did not include a picture of any Night Stalker helicopters wearing the desert camouflage scheme and no mention was made about the multi-tone blue pattern that first emerged publicly just five months later. The War Zone has reached out to the Army for more information.

A Night Stalker MH-60M in the multi-tone blue scheme. Pryor Field Airport Authority

The full slide from Waleski’s briefing, seen below, does make clear that the 160th’s recent camouflage work is an outgrowth of Project Genesis, an internal innovation “challenge” within the Army special operations aviation community that kicked off in 2022. The same slide also highlights the Degraded Visual Environment Pilotage System (DVEPS), which helps pilots navigate safely through dust and other obscurants, and shows a Night Stalker Black Hawk launching an ALTIUS 600 drone in mid-air. These are capabilities the Army has been working to field in conventional units, as well.

US Army via AAAA

You can watch Col. Roger Waleski’s full presentation at the AAAA summit in 2023 below. His remarks about camouflage begin at around the 18:05 mark.

“These camouflage applications are intended to test various thresholds in visual acquisition of the aircraft,” a spokesperson for US Army Special Operations Aviation Command (USASOAC) told The War Zone last week in response to earlier questions about the blue camouflage scheme seen on Night Stalker helicopters. “There are currently no plans for a mass application of any particular camouflage scheme to 160th SOAR aircraft, and these current applications were not spurred by any recent events. USASOAC constantly seeks out ways to improve survivability for our pilots, crews, and support personnel.”

That being said, an Arctic camouflage option for 160th’s helicopters makes good sense in the context of current affairs. Four months after the AAAA summit where Col. Waleski spoke, overall black Night Stalker MH-60s took part in a special operations capabilities demonstration nicknamed Polar Dagger in and around Alaska, which included a mock defense of Shemya Island. This is a highly strategic location that hosts the huge AN/FPS-108 Cobra Dane early warning and missile tracking radar and an airfield with a 10,000-foot-long runway. Part of the Aleutian Islands chain, Shemya is actually closer to Russian soil (the Kamchatka Peninsula, which is around 500 miles to the west) than mainland Alaska (1,000 miles to the east).

A Night Stalker MH-60M on Shemya Island in 2023. The AN/FPS-108 Cobra Dane radar is seen in the background. US Army

The Arctic has growing potential to be a major flashpoint, especially between the United States and Russia. China’s People’s Liberation Army, which the U.S. military identifies as its pacing challenge, is a growing player in the region, too, including in direct cooperation with its Russian partners. New access to resources, from oil and natural gas to fish, and trade routes as polar ice continues to recede as a byproduct of global climate change has been a major factor in this growing competition.

Last year’s Polar Dagger demonstration also included off-shore training involving Night Stalker Black Hawks and the U.S. Navy’s San Antonio class amphibious warship USS John P. Murtha, underscoring the 160th’s maritime capabilities. As The War Zone has pointed out before, long-duration over-water missions are exactly the kinds of complex and challenging missions, often conducted across great distances and at night, that the 160th has become world-renowned for. Night Stalkers also often have to contend with threats on the ground and in the air on missions that can taken them deep into hostile territory.

A pair of MH-60Ms from the 160th SOAR come in to land on the deck of the USS John P. Murtha off the coast of Alaska in September 2023. USN A pair of MH-60Ms from the 160th SOAR come in to land on the deck of the USS John P. Murtha. USN

The 160th’s maritime capabilities are getting renewed attention as part larger U.S. military pivot to the Pacific, with its particular eye on a potential future major fight with China. This also represents a major soul-searching moment for the U.S. special operations community after more than two decades spent conducting counter-terrorism and other lower-intensity missions, especially in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

That being said, Col. Waleski’s mention last year of new desert camouflage options for Night Stalker helicopters point to ongoing and potential future operations in the Middle East, as well as other desert environments, still being high on the list of planning considerations.

“We are not simply wrapping our aircraft because Americans want to look cool, but because we’re attempting to leverage techniques to hide in plain sight,” the 160th’s commander also noted last year. “Combined with international messaging, even relatively small changes create dilemmas for our adversaries and contribute to competition and deterrence.”

Different camouflage wraps might help Night Stalker helicopters blend in with their regular Army counterparts or with similar types operated by foreign allies and partners at forward locations to a limited degree. At the same time, as already noted the types that the 160th flies are covered in distinctive features that would likely make it hard for them to truly go unnoticed even without their default overall black paint jobs.

A Royal Jordanian Armed Forces Black Hawk wearing a desert camouflage scheme seen during an exercise in that country that also involved US special operations forces in 2022. DOD Sgt. 1st Class Lisa Rodriguez-Presley

This idea does reflect something of a trend being seen elsewhere in the U.S. military, especially within the U.S Air Force’s Air Mobility Command, to remove uniquely identifying markings from aircraft. The underlying idea is to make it more difficult for opponents to monitor their movements and, by extension, glean details about their activities.

In 2006, Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1) also notably “green-washed” one of its VH-60N helicopters, which typically wear a high-visibility white-and-green scheme, to support President George W. Bush’s historic visit to Afghanistan. That was almost certainly done to try to make it look more like a regular Army UH-60 to help conceal its true role acting as Marine One.

The green-washed VH-60N in Afghanistan in 2006. Stephan de Bruijn via AirHistory.net

It’s also worth noting that, in addition to flying some of the most advanced and capable helicopters in the world today, the Night Stalkers routinely experiment with and adopt new and novel technologies, as well as tactics, techniques, and procedures to go with them. Camouflage is no exception. In the 1980s, some early Night Stalker MH-60As flew with overall gray paint jobs, similar to those found on U.S. Navy Seahawks, while operating in the Persian Gulf during the so-called Tanker War.

A gray-painted 160th SOAR Black Hawk in use during the Tanker War. DOD

“Various camouflage color, texture, and pattern schemes have been used to conceal military equipment and personnel for most of recorded military history. The US Army Special Operations Aviation Command is tasked with providing every advantage possible to our aviators and crews to maintain an operational edge in today’s global operating environment,” the USASOC spokesperson added in their recent statement to The War Zone. “Given the nationally-significant mission sets often handed to the 160th SOAR, the advantage gained from offering the smallest visual signature in the most environments is our goal.” 

Altogether, there are clear signs Night Stalker helicopters will be increasingly appearing in paint schemes other than their trademark black amid new focus on the Pacific and the Arctic, ongoing operations in the Middle East, and just to make it that much more complicated to spot them whenever they might go.

Special thanks to user @airsuperiorx on X for bringing Col. Roger Waleski’s presentation at the AAAA summit last year to our attention.

Contact the author: joe@twz.com