New Night Stalker Little Bird Helicopters Now Dubbed MH-6R (Updated)

The next version of the famed Little Bird helicopter for the U.S. Army’s elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, also known as the Night Stalkers, has reportedly been designated the MH-6R. This comes as U.S. Special Operations Command continues to move ahead with its Mission Enhanced Little Bird-X upgrade effort amid new uncertainty about the future of these helicopters following the U.S. Army’s cancellation of its Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft program, or FARA. The expectation had previously been that around half of the 160th’s Little Birds would eventually be replaced by a special operations version of the final FARA design.

The announcement about the MH-6R designation for Little Birds in the future Mission Enhanced Little Bird-X (MELB-X) configuration came at the 2024 International Military Helicopter conference, according to a post on X from Janes‘ Gareth Jennings. He also wrote that the first of 52 MELB-Xs for the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), upgraded from its existing fleet of M variant Little Birds, is set to be delivered sometime in the 2025 Fiscal Year. U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) first announced the MELB-X program, effectively a rebranding of what was previously called Future Little Bird (FLB), in 2021.

It is unclear whether or not there is a companion AH-6R designation. Army special operations versions of the H-6 have historically been designated MH-6s and AH-6s depending on their configuration, despite the underlying helicopters being readily convertible from one setup to the other. The MH-6 designation has been used for a light personnel transport configuration with planks on either side for special operators to ride on and the Fast Rope Insertion Extraction System (FRIES). AH-6s are configured for light attack missions and are capable of carrying an array of weaponry, including Galting-type machine guns, Hellfire missiles, and 70mm rockets.

An MH-6M Little Bird. Air National Guard Air National Guard
An AH-6M Little Bird. U.S. Army

Today, the 160th’s Little Birds, which are small and highly maneuverable, provide valuable niche capabilities, including the ability to operate in more physically constrained environments. The size of the helicopters also gives them immense flexibility when it comes to where they can operate from. They can also be readily loaded and unloaded onto various kinds of cargo aircraft, including C-130 Hercules variants, which can then be used to get them more rapidly to and from forward locations, and be ready for flight in minutes.

An AH-6M Little Bird is seen here being unloaded from a C-130-series aircraft. Note the upturned rocket pods and the folded main rotor, which help reduce the helicopter’s physical size for ease of transport. DOD

Details about what new capabilities and features might come with the MELB-X upgrade package have been limited. The 160th’s Little Birds have already been steadily upgraded since the 1980s, with the current Block III AH/MH-6M MELB versions having six-blade rotors and expanded takeoff weights compared to their predecessors. The Block IIIs also have newly-machined zero-lifed reinforced airframes. In addition, the AH-6/MH-6s have been receiving additional incremental upgrades, including new radios, fuel tanks, and seats, in recent years.

The potential for a further improved Block IV configuration for the Little Bird has been raised in the past. There has also been talk about a potential major engine upgrade, possibly involving a type of hybrid turbine-electric configuration that could offer a significant boost in performance and better fuel economy. The top speed of existing AH/MH-6s is said to be around 90 knots.

“We’ve looked at the Little Bird, we figured out how can we reconfigure that platform to accommodate a hybrid electric configuration,” Geoffrey Downer, head of U.S. Special Operations Command’s (SOCOM) Program Executive Office for Rotary Wing (PEO-RW), told The War Zone and other outlets at a press briefing on the sidelines of the annual SOF Week conference in May 2023. “The studies that we’ve done show that you can get anywhere from 25 to 100 percent increase in speed. So, if I’m flying in at 90 knots now, I can get 170-180 knots. That’s huge.”

The War Zone has reached out to SOCOM and Boeing, the current prime contractor for the 160th’s Little Birds, for more information about the MH-6R/MELB-X effort.

Further upgrading the 160th’s Little Birds has now taken on substantial new significance following the Army’s cancellation of the FARA program earlier this month.

“When these FARA and FLRAA [Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft] aircrafts start coming into SOCOM in the early 2030s timeframe, and we get those into our fleet… we will have replaced over 50 percent of our fleet with those platforms with the numbers the Army… is planning on giving to us,” SOCOM’s Downer said at SOF Week last year. “It [the Little Bird] only flies 90 knots, so it’ll [FARA] give us critical speed that we need.”

A side-by-side of the two contenders in the new canceled FARA competition. At left, Sikorsky’s Raider X and, at right, Bell’s 360 Invictus. Sikorsky/Bell

This was in line with what Downer had said at the same conference in 2022. “My big concern is we’re modernizing our fleet to flying at 200-plus knots and I’ve got an aircraft that flies 80-90 knots, so it’s not going to be able to keep up,” he said at that time, referring adjacent plans to acquire special operations-specific versions of the Army’s Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA).

The Army selected a design based on Bell’s V-280 Valor tilt-rotor as the winner of the FLRAA competition in December 2022. SOCOM still expects the 160th SOAR to eventually field a special operations FLRAA subvariant, which will supplant a portion of its existing MH-60M Black Hawk fleet.

Similar speed concerns, as well as ones relating to range, especially in the context of a potential future high-end conflict in the Pacific, such as one against China, look to have contributed significantly to the decision to axe FARA, as The War Zone recently explored in detail.

For many years it appeared that MELB-X might itself be canceled and the 160th’s Little Birds retired entirely. The Night Stalkers are the only operators of H-6 series helicopters in the U.S. military.

“We don’t know which platform the army is going to select for Future Vertical Lift. There are a lot of decisions we have going forward,” SOCOM’s Downer had said in 2021, according to Janes. “Maybe [MELB-X] is really just a placeholder for instant market options going forward. We don’t know whether or not we’re going to do a [Little Bird] Block IV modification to do that configuration.”

At that time, Downer raised questions about just how much more capability could realistically be squeezed out of the H-6 series design.

Members of the U.S. Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment ride on 160th SOAR MH-6Ms during a training exercise in 2023. U.S. Army

SOCOM certainly seems more committed to the idea of another major upgrade for the 160th’s Little Bird fleet now. There are still questions about how the H-6 series will be able to keep up with other aviation modernization efforts and what else the U.S. special operations community might pursue to provide similar capabilities in future major conflicts.

Update 2/29/2024:

U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has now responded to The War Zone’s queries with additional information and clarification. SOCOM has confirmed the MH-6R designation, as well as the existence of a companion AH-6R nomenclature, but has clarified that these apply to the Block III Little Birds.

“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,” according to SOCOM. “We will monitor the Army’s modernization plans and stay linked with the Army to the extent that the systems they field will meet SOCOM’s requirements.  SOCOM continues to work closely with government, academia, and industry to meet its mission to provide rapid and focused acquisition, technology, and logistics support to Warfighters, delivering the most effective capabilities to our Special Operations Forces.”

Contact the author: