US Special Operations Command prepares for aviation upgrades

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A member of the 83rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron observes a U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan. (Photo: DoD)

U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has big plans to upgrade its aviation capabilities. Just before 2018 ended, the Department of Defense (DoD) awarded two separate contracts to Boeing to upgrade and maintain America’s special operations helicopter fleet.

The first contract Boeing was awarded was a $1.1 billion, seven-year contract to maintain SOCOM’s current fleet of MH-6 Little Birds, MH-47 Chinooks, and MH-60 Blackhawk helicopters. The aerospace company will provide support program management, field service representatives, and sustained engineering. Furthermore, Boeing will ensure a steady stream of spare parts. Most of the work will take place at Boeing’s facility in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, which also happens to be where the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) is headquartered.

The second contract Boeing received is smaller but more specialized. The aerospace company will produce an indefinite number of Mission Enhanced Little Bird (MELB) kits to upgrade the two variants of the Little Bird helicopter (AH-6 is the attack version and MH-6 is the troop-transport version). The MELB upgrades were first adopted earlier this decade. The kit provides an improved six-blade main rotor and four-blade tail rotors. It also offers an enhanced tail boom and rotor drive system, a chambered vertical fin, and an upgraded tail stinger. Further, MELB kits provide more efficient and accessible door openings and a better landing gear. The contract is worth $48 million and is expected to be fulfilled by December 2026. It is worth noting that this was a sole source procurement, meaning SOCOM didn’t run a competition to determine which company offered the best upgrade and price.

The AH-6 is a light attack helicopter. Flown by the 160th SOAR, the chopper specializes in armed reconnaissance, direct action, and close air support. It can be outfitted with a variety of weapons, including the GAU-19 .50 caliber Gatling gun, M134 Minigun, and Hellfire anti-tank or Stinger anti-air missiles. The MH-6 is the unarmed version. Its small size and extreme maneuverability make it an ideal aerial platform to surgically insert and extract SOF units from targets. It can even carry motorcycles. It has two pods where troops can sit.

These are the latest contracts in a long list of SOF aviation awards Boeing has received lately. Earlier in 2018, Boeing won a $122 million contract to continue producing the MH-47G Chinook helicopter. The MH-47G is the heavy-lift workhorse of the 160th SOAR. The steady stream of Chinooks that Boeing continues to build underlines the enduring importance of SOF units to American military doctrine.