Warplanes: Little Bird Goes Full Gunship


October 15, 2019: In September the Thailand Army ordered eight American AH-6i light attack reconnaissance helicopters. The helicopters, weapons, training and support will cost around $400 million. The U.S. government has approved the sale but it still has to be approved by the American Congress. Thailand needs the AH-6is to replace seven elderly U.S. AH-1F gunships.

The AH-6i light attack and reconnaissance helicopter is the latest evolution of A/MH-6M “Little Bird” used by U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command). The AH-6i is a model is for export customers. The AH-6i first flew in late September 2009. The AH-6i is a single-engine helicopter based on the civilian MD500 helicopter so development moves along quickly. Actually the AH-6 development began in 2004 to create a more capable armed reconnaissance helicopter as well as a version that was unmanned, for particularly dangerous versions. The AH-6i is technically still under development but there are already orders Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The 6i is considered ready to ship.

The AH-6i is a 1.6 ton helicopter that has a payload of 900 kg and normally carries a crew of two but can carry up to five people, and fewer weapons. Max speed is 282 kilometers an hour, cruise speed is 250 kilometers and max range is 430 kilometers. Endurance is about two hours. Max altitude is 5,700 m (17,700 feet). Two small wings can carry a variety of weapons. Armament can include two multi (three) barrel machine-guns of either 12.7mm or 7.62mm caliber. These machine-guns can fire up to 3,000 rounds a minute but normally fire about 1,200 a minute and carry enough ammo for a minute or so of sustained fire. These machine-guns typically fire in short (one or a few seconds) bursts. While the AH-6 can carry two Hellfire laser-guided missiles, which weigh 50 kg each, the preferred missile is the lighter APKWS, which is a laser-guided version of the unguided 70mm Hydra rocket. Fourteen Hydras or APKWS can be carried in two launchers holding seven missiles each. The APKWS has about the same range as the Hellfire but a smaller warhead. American and local forces have used APKWS in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2012 and find it superior to the Hellfire on many missions because you can carry more of the 15 kg APKWS on a helicopter. Helicopters have been the main users of Hydra rockets since the 1960s and the Hydra launchers are easily adapted to handle APKWS. The Thais are ordering 50 Hellfires, which they have used on AH-1F as well as 200 APKWS and 500 Hydra rockets.

The AH-6i will be used mainly against armed drug smugglers along their Burma border or armed separatists and Islamic terrorists in the south near the Malaysia border. The Moslem separatists and Islamic terrorists often operate in populated areas so the smaller APKWS would be the preferred weapon because of its accuracy, reliability and a small warhead that would minimize injuring nearby civilians or friendly forces. The AH-6i has a modern “glass” cockpit that makes it easier for the pilots to find, follow and fire on ground targets. The AH-6i is also equipped for night operations, which is standard for SOCOM helicopters. The AH-6i also has a more robust airframe to cope with carrying more weapons, firing machine-guns and maneuvering close to the ground. The MD500 and its military derivatives have a good safety record, better than the AH-1F and more maneuverable as well. By way of comparison, the older AH-1F is a 4.3 ton twin-engine aircraft and the current AH-64 is 11 tons and much more expensive than the AH-6i.

Thailand has long been an American ally in Southeast Asia. Thailand uses a lot of American equipment, including recent deliveries of Stryker wheeled armored vehicles. But China has been making inroads, mainly because there have been two periods of the military government in the last decade and, when the military was in charge, it was more difficult to buy Western weapons and the Chinese were ready to offer comparable equipment at good prices. But for combat aircraft, the Thais still prefer to buy American, or at least Western. ---- Przemyslaw Juraszek




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