Procurement: Foreigners Sniff Out Little Bird


May 18, 2010: Two years ago, Boeing began offering a gunship version of its OH-6 helicopter to foreign customers. Now they have their first sale. Jordan is buying some (the exact number is being negotiated) for their border guard. The Jordanians will get a customized version, the AH-6I, which will probably include the night sensors and laser designator. Jordan has a long desert frontier, and lots of problems with smugglers, and the movement of Islamic terrorists across the border. Jordan will retire it's 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-6 can also carry a day/night targeting system, including a laser designator.

Later versions of the AH-6 were based on a similar helicopter, the MD-500. The new AH-6 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 it. Little Bird could be a big deal on the international market, but so far only the Jordanians, and the American FBI have stepped up.