NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The U.S. Army’s Special Operations Command won’t be replacing its urban, nimble "street fighter" helicopter anytime soon. It instead plans to keep the MH-6 Little Bird flying through upgrades until Future Vertical Lift aircraft begin replacing legacy helicopters.
"Right now with the current technology, we are wed to the program that is going to provide us the 3.0 block upgrade to our current Mission Enhanced Little Bird," Brig. Gen. John Evans, commander of the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Aviation Command, said at the Army Aviation Association of America’s annual summit Friday.
"We expect that to take us into at least the [Future Vertical Lift] time frame," he said. "I don’t believe we are going to see anything that is going to emerge prior to FVL that would replace the Little Bird."
A year ago, Army Special Operations was mulling how it might be able to replace its aging light-assault helicopter, but since the Army doesn’t fly Little Birds in its much larger fleet, Special Operations would have to procure a smaller number of helicopters — about 70 — by itself, which would drive the unit price up to a level that could be unaffordable.
The MELB Block III will provide greater capability flying at high altitudes in heat and allow for more payloads in support of the ground force, Evans said.
"There are a few more enhancements with regards to how we are looking at mission or aircraft survivability. We [are] thinking we’ve got a bit of an envelope for expansion there that we’ve really not had in the past because we’ve been so weight-conscious with the Little Bird that we’ve really depended on its size and ability to stay away from the threat," he said. "As the threat is getting more advanced, we have to kind of take a look at what we can do to provide that aircraft some active protection systems."
Waiting for new helicopters to emerge through FVL could mean rethinking whether Special Operations missions can do without such a small, nimble aircraft in tomorrow’s fight. For one, the aircraft is so small it has limited range and is also limited in its ability to carry a full complement of special forces.
"We have got some decisions to make about what capability we are willing to cede if we decide to go with a capability set 1 type offering of FVL because, frankly, anything that we would look at for FVL, based on some of the conceptual designs I’ve seen, would be larger than the current Little Bird footprint," Evans said. "And we like that current Little Bird footprint because we can do things with it that no other helicopter can do."
The Army’s FVL program of record will field a family of new helicopters starting in the early 2030s with a medium-lift variant it is calling capability set 3. The Marine Corps and Special Operations will also receive new aircraft through the effort.
The future variants are currently organized as capability sets 1 through 5, with 1 being the lightest aircraft, where an armed reconnaissance helicopter would fit, and 5 being a heavy-lift cargo aircraft.
It’s looking most probable that the Army will tackle capability set 1 following a medium-lift variant that would be small but still significantly larger than a Little Bird.
When the Army begins the work on FVL capability set 1, Special Operations Aviation Command will have to decide whether it forgoes an aircraft as small as a Little Bird or looks at other options.
"We have centered our focus in special operation on what the ground force commander needs, so if he needs speed, range and payload that will keep up with a 200-plus knot aircraft like we are looking at for FVL, it will be very challenging to stay with the platform like the current Little Bird or an in-kind replacement," Evans said.
"At the same time, we want to make sure we are making informed decisions in the future about what capability we would have to give up to not replace that airframe," he added, such as forgoing flying into places where the current Little Bird can fly.
Evans said he is a fan of working with the Army to get to solutions that meet both Army aviation and special operations aviation needs, "but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t certain things that we have to go it alone on, but our ability to fund those things is really kind of constrained."
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.