Blue Camouflage MH-6 Little Birds Point To Night Stalkers’ Pacific Pivot

MH-6 Little Birds belonging to the U.S. Army’s elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), better known as the Night Stalkers, are now flying in a multi-tone blue camouflage scheme, as seen during recent deck landing training with a U.S. Navy destroyer. This underscores the renewed importance of the maritime domain to the U.S. special operations community as it works to ensure its relevance in potential high-end fights, especially one against China in the Pacific, after decades of counter-terror and counter-insurgency operations. The War Zone previously highlighted this manifestation of the famed unit’s change in focus when the blue scheme first emerged on a Night Stalker MH-60 Black Hawk last year.

U.S. Army Special Operations Aviation Command (USASOAC) posted pictures showing at least two blue-painted MH-6s training with the Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Bainbridge (DDG-96) on social media earlier today, which was brought to our attention by @thenewarea51 on X, a friend of The War Zone. At least one Little Bird in the 160th’s standard overall black paint scheme is also seen in the images. USASOAC has described the helicopters as MH-6Ms, but they have six-bladed main rotors. This is something that has been identified in the past as a component of the latest Block III Mission Enhanced Little Bird (MELB) configuration, now also known as the R variant.

A pair of MH-6Ms wearing the blue camouflage scheme fly past the Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Bainbridge, identifiable by its hull number. USASOAC

The Night Stalkers currently operate a mix of M and R variant Little Birds configured as either MH-6s or AH-6s. MH-6s are small “assault” transports with planks on either side for operators to ride on and the Fast Rope Insertion Extraction System (FRIES). AH-6s are light attack helicopters capable of carrying various missiles, rockets, and guns. Both configurations use the same underlying helicopter, and MH-6s can be readily converted to AH-6s and vice versa.

A Night Stalker MH-6M in the unit’s standard overall black paint scheme comes in to land on the USS Bainbridge during the recent deck landing training. USASOAC

“MH-6M helicopters from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment conduct deck landing training aboard a US Navy ship,” the USASOAC post on X reads. “160th SOAR pilots and crews regularly train for operations on unique platforms, in diverse environments, at any time.”

Pictures of Night Stalker Little Birds with the new blue paint jobs first emerged earlier this year. This followed the appearance of an MH-60 from the 160th wearing the scheme at Pryor Field Airport in Alabama in September 2023. What is likely the same Black Hawk has since been spotted elsewhere.

Details about the blue camouflage scheme, its origins, and how widely the Night Stalkers expect to make use of it remain scant. It has been suggested that the paint job may be a product of Project Genesis, an internal innovation “challenge” the U.S. Army’s special operations aviation community held in 2022.

“ARSOA [Army Special Operations Aviation] has launched Project Genesis … a 120-day challenge where every Night Stalker has the opportunity to submit ideas (paper-thin) and compete to be one of five finalists to live-pitch their idea or solution to a panel of past and present Night Stalkers and possibly see their idea make its way onto an aircraft, into a hangar, or incorporated into a support office,” according to an article in the June 2022 edition of Army Aviation Magazine.

The War Zone has reached out to the US Army for more information.

A picture of the Night Stalker MH-60 Black Hawk wearing the blue camouflage scheme at Pryor Field Airport last year. Pryor Field Airport Authority

The U.S. military’s focus on preparing for a possible high-end conflict against China in the Pacific has put new emphasis on training for operations in and around maritime environments. There is also the growing potential of the highly strategic Arctic, where the maritime domain is particularly important, becoming a major flashpoint.

After focusing on counter-terrorism and other lower-intensity missions in the Middle East and Afghanistan for the past 20 years or so, the U.S. special operations community has been working to reorient itself to this new security paradigm. This includes the Night Stalkers, who notably highlighted how the unique capabilities they offer could be utilized in maritime and Arctic operations in a demonstration in and around Alaska last August. That included deck landing training with the Navy’s San Antonio class amphibious warship USS John P. Murtha in the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia, another one of America’s chief global competitors.

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 importance of the maritime domain extends beyond the Pacific and the Arctic, too, as underscored by the campaign that Iranian-backed Houthi militants are continuing to wage against commercial ships and foreign naval vessels in and around the Red Sea. Waterways in Europe, especially the strategic Baltic Sea and Black Sea have taken on new significance since Russia launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

The 160th SOAR already has a long history of conducting maritime operations in cooperation with the U.S. Navy. The Night Stalkers regularly train to conduct a host of missions in over-water environments, including getting special operators onto the decks of hostile or otherwise non-cooperative vessels. Complex and demanding operations, often involving flights over very long distances in unforgiving conditions and at night, are the unit’s specialty. The 160th is also well known for experimenting with new or unusual helicopters (or unique configurations of standard types), weapons, and other systems, as well as tactics, techniques, and procedures.

On an operational level, it is worth noting that the 160th’s Little Birds offer unique capabilities given how small and maneuverable they are, which are applicable to maritime operations, as well as ones over land. Their size, in particular, means they can be loaded into various aircraft and embarked on ships that otherwise might not be able to accommodate larger helicopters.

“It is your streetfighter,” Paul Kylander, Little Bird program manager with U.S. Special Operations Command’s larger PEO-RW office, told The War Zone and other attendees at the SOF Week conference in May. “I’ve heard it said multiple times that this still continues to be the most effective platform to get a set of operators to like to a rooftop.”

The Night Stalkers’ Little Bird fleet is currently experiencing what has been described as a “resurrection” following the Army’s decision to cancel its Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) program. The expectation had previously been that a special operations variant of FARA would supplant at least a significant portion of the 160th’s Little Birds. The plan now for what will happen to the helicopters beyond 2030 is still murky, as you can read more about here.

The appearance of the MH-6Ms wearing the new blue camouflage scheme underscores the continued relevance of the 160th’s Little Birds and the distinct capabilities they offer, including in the maritime domain.

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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.