Warplanes: Gunship Lite Takes Arabia


October 29, 2010: Saudi Arabia has become the second export customer of the new AH-6I, a gunship version of its OH-6 scout helicopter. It was two years ago that U.S. based Boeing began offering the AH-6I to foreign customers. Earlier this year, Jordan became the first customer, buying some (the exact number is being negotiated) for their border guard. The AH-6I has night sensors and laser designator, and most of the other electronics that equip the latest version of the AH-64 (the Block III). Jordan has a long desert frontier, and lots of problems with smugglers, and the movement of Islamic terrorists across the border. Jordan will retire its 11 elderly AH-1S gunships, so the AH-6I order will probably be two dozen or more.

SOCOM has long used the MH-6 (and the AH-6) version of the 1960s era OH-6. Developed in the early 1980s, the AH-6, or "Little Bird" is a 1.4 ton helicopter with a crew of two, top speed of 280 kilometers an hour. Average sortie is 3-3.5 hours. It can be armed with two 7.62mm or 12.7mm machine-gun pods, or two 70mm rocket pods (seven or 12 rockets each) or four Hellfire missiles. Without weapons, the MH-6 can carry six troops (usually Special Forces operators) externally. The new AH-6I can also carry a day/night targeting system, including a laser designator. The AH-6I also carries four Hellfire, or a dozen or more of the 70mm guided rockets (which weigh a quarter of what the Hellfire does.)

Later versions of the AH-6 were based on a similar helicopter, the MD-500. The new AH-6I enables nations to have helicopter gunship capability at a cost of only about six million dollars per aircraft. That's about a tenth of what a AH-64D would cost, and a third of what a Russian gunship goes for. Little Bird could be a big deal on the international market, but so far only the Saudis, Jordanians, and the American FBI have stepped up.



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