Air Weapons: Little Missiles For Little Bird

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March 3, 2020: Saudi Arabia is spending $646,000 each to have its 23 AH-6I armed scout helicopters upgraded to use smaller (70mm APKWS) laser-guided missiles. In addition, the helicopters are being modified to allow for some equipment storage in place of the three passenger seats behind the pilots. A DVR (solids state video recorder) is being added to enable the pilot to get high resolution video of whatever he encounters as well as anytime weapons are used. These aircraft DVRs feature solid-state data storage and can record everything that happens through a sortie and rapidly transfer the video data once on the ground.

The AH-6I fire control system was already able to handle Hellfire laser-guided missiles and unguided 70mm rockets. Many helicopters and fighter-bombers now carry the smaller APKWS 70mm guided missiles. These weigh 13.6 kg (30 pounds) with a 2.7 kg (six pound) warhead and a range of about six kilometers. He AH-6I can already carry the 70mm rockets in a seven rocket pod they already use for unguided rockets. That pod can be rewired to fire the APKWS, which are preferable to the larger (45 kg) Hellfire because the smaller warhead allows the APKWS to be fired on armed enemies who have gotten very close to civilians or friendly troops. Since APKWS are smaller and lighter, more can be carried. The AH-6I can also carry a 12.7mm or 7.62mm machine-gun pod. Normally one machine-gun pod and one rocket/missile pod are carried. If Hellfires are carried two of these missiles replace a weapons pod. In other words, four Hellfires can be carried or 14 APKWS.

Back in 2010, Saudi Arabia was one of the first export customers for the new AH-6I, a gunship version of its OH-6 scout helicopter. In 2008 U.S. based Boeing began offering the AH-6I to foreign customers. Earlier in 2010, Jordan became the first customer, ordering some for their border guard. The 2011 Arab Spring unrest disrupted these plans and Jordan has yet to follow through on their order. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia received the 24 it ordered and in 2019 Thailand ordered eight.

The AH-6I has night sensors and a 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 wanted to retire its 11 elderly AH-1S gunships but that was also delayed by 2011 disorder.

U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) 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 and a 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 an 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, Thailand and the American FBI have stepped up. The 1.6 ton, single-engine AH-6I can carry two pilots and three passengers. Cruising speed is 250 kilometers an hour while top speed is 280 kilometers. Sorties usually last 90-120 minutes. Max ceiling is 5,700 meters (18,700 feet).

 


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