H-6 Little Bird’s Future Upended Due To Army Axing Armed Scout Helicopter

The Night Stalkers’ famed AH/MH-6 Little Bird helicopters are looking at a “resurrection,” but for how long and what comes after is uncertain.

byJoseph Trevithick|
The famed Little Bird helicopters used by the Army's elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment are seeing a 'resurrection' after the Army's cancellation of the Future Armed Reconnaissance Aircraft program, but their future is still murky.
Jamie Hunter


The U.S. Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment's famed Little Bird helicopters are now experiencing a "resurrection" in the wake of the cancellation of the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) program. At the same time, the future of the Little Birds beyond 2030 is murky as U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is now reassessing its options for further upgrading and/or replacing the helicopters.

SOCOM officials provided updates on the Little Bird program to The War Zone and other attendees at the annual SOF Week conference this week. Prior to the Army's announcement that it was canceling FARA in February, the expectation was that around half of the Little Bird fleet, at least, would be replaced by a special operations-specific variant of that new armed scout helicopter. The main goal of FARA had been to acquire a new armed scout helicopter.

Jamie Hunter

"I'm gonna get the monkey off my back right off the start and say on nine February, the Army canceled the FARA program. And that changed our equation, right, because that was going to become the armed platform that would take the role of the AH-6 [Little Bird] and would take the role of the [MH-60 Black Hawk] DAP [Direct Action Penetrator] aircraft," Dr. Steven Smith, SOCOM's Program Executive Officer for Rotary Wing aviation programs, told attendees at SOF Week on Tuesday. "And so now we don't have that solution available. So we're going to be sustaining those aircraft for a long time, right?"

The current Little Bird fleet is made up of helicopters configured as either AH-6 or MH-6 subvariants. The AH-6s are light attack types capable of carrying a mix of weapons, including Galting-type machine guns, Hellfire missiles, and 70mm rockets. The MH-6s are referred to as "assault" versions and have a pair of planks for special operators to ride on and the Fast Rope Insertion Extraction System (FRIES). The core underlying helicopter is common between both configurations and they are readily convertible from one to the other. The Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, also known as the Night Stalkers, is the only unit that operates these helicopters, at least publicly.

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The Little Birds have been and continue to be upgraded. The 160th is now in the process of transitioning from Block 2-series AH/MH-6M Mission Enhanced Little Bird (MELB) variants to new AH/MH-6R MELB Block 3 types. The new R designation for the Block 3 helicopters was announced earlier this year, as The War Zone previously reported.

"So, we've finished the Block 2.2 mods. We've integrated the next-generation FLIR [Forward Looking Infrared sensor] and the next-generation tactical radios," Dr. Smith explained earlier this week. "And now we're into the third delivery of Block 3, and Block 3 has been renamed the A/MH-6R. With the cancellation of FARA that R is not a Romeo, I'm calling it 'Little Bird Resurrection.' So it's the future for Little Bird."

The biggest upgrade found on the Block 3 Little Birds is their new zero-timed and reinforced main fuselages.

"[It is a] brand new fuselage manufactured by Boeing, that incorporated all of our previous structural modification[s]. [It] takes the design limit for the gross weight up to 5,000 pounds. Not that we're ever going to fly the aircraft at 5,000 pounds, but it's building in safety margin for that aircraft," Smith said. "So that is huge... because when we bought the old commercial fuselages and integrated the multiple kits... we had to get it to the 4,700-pound configuration that cost us millions of dollars. So now that's all incorporated in one fuselage."

The Block 3 Little Birds also have a major cockpit upgrade in the form of the Avionics Management System (AMS) package. This is an open architecture system intended to also help allow for the faster integration of new and improved capabilities in the future.

A briefing slide shown at this year's SOF Week discussing Block 2 and 3 upgrades to the Little Bird fleet. Jamie Hunter

"So we'll be working on those aircraft through 2031-2032," according to Smith.

What comes after that is less clear, especially given the cancelation of FARA. As happened with the Block 2 Little Birds, the new Block 3 versions are expected to continue receiving further incremental upgrades in the coming years.

"We expect we're going to want some additional performance. There's not a tremendous amount of work that we can do with that platform [the Little Bird], given the constraints of the size of its [rotor assembly]... there's limits to what we can do," Dr. Smith explained at SOF Week on Tuesday. "We have looked at doing some electrification work, and unfortunately, I just don't think the funding's there to support that."

The "electrification work" mentioned here appears to be a reference to past discussions about the possible integration of a hybrid-electric propulsion system into the Little Birds.

"So we'll be looking at the things that we'd normally look at... So it'd be great to go after an advanced [rotor] blade," he added. "And so we're monitoring some commercial developments that we see out there and we'll probably be looking at those in the future."

Dr. Smith also mentioned potential power train and mission system upgrades down the line for Little Bird.

Jamie Hunter

Whether this all leads to an entire new block of Little Birds, something that has been referred to as MELB-X in the past, is unclear. In his presentation on Tuesday, Dr. Smith stressed that the "H-6-X" mentioned in one of his briefing slides did not reflect "an experimental [design]" and that "there's nothing there yet."

"We'll have a little bit of [Little Bird] Resurrection, right, with the new fuselage and the cockpit, out through 2031. That's about a 15-year life we've predicted on that fuselage. I think that gives us a little bit of time to allow the Army to figure out what it's going to do for its scout requirement," Dr. Smith added. "FARA's been canceled, but the requirement itself, right, to have something that can see, sense, [and] fix adversaries over the horizon, right, that still exists."

"And so whether that's going to be unmanned systems, or some sort of manned unmanned teaming, right, we'll have that time to figure that out," he continued. When the Army announced it was canceling FARA, the service highlighted investments in future uncrewed capabilities as an alternative path to meeting some of the same operational requirements.

It's also interesting here to note here that SOCOM looks to be increasingly viewing the future AH-6 and MH-6 subvariants, and what might replace them, as separate decision tracks.

Jamie Hunter

“With the cancellation of FARA, there's a little bit of confusion – not confusion, but I think maybe more paths in terms of what was going to happen with this platform," Paul Kylander, who manages the Little Bird program specifically within the larger PEO-RW office, told The War Zone and other attendees at SOF Week yesterday. "With FARA now not being necessarily on solid footing, we see certainly the AH-6 as a more enduring part of the [160th Special Operations Aviation] Regiment.”

This aligns with Dr. Smith's previous comments about FARA only having been expected to supplant the AH-6 subvariants. It had already been unclear how the armed scout helicopters the Army was considering for that program would be adaptable to the MH-6's assault mission set. The Raider X entry from Sikorsky, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, did have a reconfigurable cabin that could be set up to transport personnel. Bell did also patent a pop-out seat kit for its FARA entrant, the 360 Invictus, but how far the development of that capability preceded is unclear.

"The decision on whether to pursue a MELB-X was going to be made after we had fielded the SOF [special operations forces] FARA variant, but will now reassess that timeline," a SOCOM spokesperson had separately told The War Zone back in February, further underscoring the potential for a separate decision process regarding the future replacement for the MH-6s.

A key issue here is that the assault subvariant of the Little Bird continues to offer unique capabilities that no other platform can provide, especially when it comes to its agility and ability to get in and out of extremely confined landing zones.

“It is your streetfighter," Kylander, the Little Bird program manager said yesterday. "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."

At the same time, Little Birds are already the slowest and shortest-legged helicopters in the Night Stalker's disclosed inventory. The U.S. military is now seeing growing needs for faster and longer-range aviation platforms to support future large-scale conflicts, especially a potential major fight in the Pacific against China. The War Zone previously explored all of this in detail in the context of the FARA program cancelation.

The Little Birds are designed to be rushed to forward areas inside C-130s and other cargo aircraft, but there are separate concerns about where larger aircraft like that will be able to operate from in future operations against high-end adversaries with ever-more capable integrated air defense networks and stand-off strike capabilities.

"I think there's a role for Little Bird [and that] there will be for quite a while," SOCOM's Dr. Smith said this week.

Jamie Hunter

Still, it remains to be seen just how long the AH/MH-6's post-FARA "resurrection" will last and what the future will ultimately hold for the Little Birds.

Contact the author: joe@twz.com