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U.S. nuclear missile fields and the Washington, D.C., area will soon be guarded by a fleet of Grey Wolves, the name given to the U.S. Air Force’s new MH-139 helicopter.
Air Force Global Strike Command, which will operate the aircraft, unveiled the name during a ceremony at Eglin Air Force Base on Dec. 19.
The MH-139 Grey Wolf is an off-the-shelf aircraft modified by Boeing to military specifications. It will replace the Bell UH-1N fleet that entered service with the Air Force in 1970 and represents a significant boost in speed, range, endurance, payload capacity and survivability over the legacy aircraft.
The helicopters also will provide VIP transportation of government and military officials around Washington, D.C., particularly in the event of an incoming nuclear strike.
As its primary mission is guarding intercontinental ballistic missile silos in Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, Colorado and Nebraska, the Air Force chose to name it for an iconic predator that historically roamed those states, according to Gen Timothy Ray, chief of Global Strike Command.
“It strikes fear in the hearts of many,” Ray said during the ceremony. “Its range is absolutely inherent to the ICBM fields we have. As they hunt as a pack, they attack as one, they bring the force of many. That’s exactly how you need to approach the nuclear security mission.”
The first MH-139 arrived at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida on Dec. 19 to begin testing. Flight testing is scheduled to continue through late 2022 with a decision on whether to enter low-rate initial production, called Milestone C, by the end of 2021.
The Air Force plans to buy 84 MH-139s, based on the Leonardo Helicopters commercial AW139 multi-mission helicopter built in Philadelphia. The aircraft are shipped across town to Boeing, where they are militarized and outfitted with nuclear-mission specific equipment, sensors and communications gear. Boeing is acting as the prime contractor on the $2.38 billion deal to replace the UH-1N fleet.
The current $375 million contract awarded in September 2018 covers the first four aircraft that will be used for operational test and evaluation. The first operational MH-139 is scheduled for delivery in 2021.
Bell did not submit an offering to replace the UH-1, leaving the ultimately successful Boeing-Leonardo team to compete with Sikorsky and Sierra Nevada in a program that emphasized best value. Sikorsky offered a version of the UH-60 Black Hawk, while Sierra Nevada was going to buy up old Army Black Hawks and refurbish them for the Air Force.
Initial Air Force estimates put the total program cost at more than $4 billion, but service officials said fierce competition drove the price down nearly $2 billion.
With the Air Force planning to replace much of its nuclear arsenal from the B-2 nuclear-capable bomber to the Minuteman ICBM, Ray hoped the Grey Wolf is a harbinger of successful acquisitions to come.
“When I think about the issue in front of us, about moving forward in nuclear deterrence, when I stare down a wave of acquisition for essentially everything we do, I hope this particular program is a harbinger of very successful stories to follow,” Ray said. “Not just for our command, but for the good of the nation, and for the good of our allies and partners.”