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U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) plans to replace all of its Black Hawks with some version of the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA), but will keep flying the H-6 Little Bird if the Army chooses a future attack helicopter that can’t carry troops.
SOCOM is in lock step with the Army-led Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program and even contributes funding to ensure requirements for commando aircraft are considered as FLRAA and the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) are developed, said Geoffrey Downer, director of special aviation programs at Army Aviation and Missile Command (AMCOM). Downer will assume the role of SOCOM’s rotary wing program executive officer on June 1.
“We’re working collaboratively with the Army,” Downer told reporters during a conference call organized by the National Defense Industrial Association as part of the Virtual Special Operations Force Industry Conference. “They are still defining what their mission equipment packages are, so we’ve defined our overarching requirements.”
Downer already serves on the Army’s Aviation “Six Pack Plus One” that includes BGen Walter Rugen, head of the FVL Cross Functional Team; Aviation Program Executive Officer Pat Mason and BGen Allan M. Pepin, commander of Army Special Operations Aviation Command, which primarily oversees operation of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, called the Night Stalkers. The 160th primarily flies the M/AH-6 Little Bird or “Killer Egg”, the SOF-peculiar MH-60 assault version of the Black Hawk, and the MH-47G.
“On those programs, we’re constantly looking for ways of improving the performance of those platforms in addition to recapitalizing them,” Downer said. As SOCOM watches the Big Army roll out FVL, it is also preparing to start building new A/MH-6 Little Birds and to upgrade its MH-47G Chinooks to Block II configuration, which includes a more robust airframe and increased lift capacity, among other performance enhancements.
SOCOM is looking intently at FLRAA as a replacement for its MH-60 Black Hawks, but wants aerial refueling capability. The SOF version also will need to fit on a C-17 aircraft, he said.
Army leadership has decided to incorporate provisions for eventual installation of aerial refueling capability in FLRAA but will not develop the full system, including the aerial refueling probe up front. SOCOM is “picking up that activity to make sure we incorporate that probe because it will be a foundation for our aircraft,” Downer said.
“I’m anticipating that . . . virtually 100 percent of our fleet will incorporate FLRAA aircraft in the future, and at some point we will look at how we divest ourselves of our MH-60 aircraft to the more capable, higher-performing, faster FLRAA aircraft,” Downer said.
While the Army is developing FARA to replace the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior armed aerial scout, Special Operations wants to retain the troop-carrying capacity of the MH-6, Downer said.
The Army recently narrowed the field of FARA hopefuls to two: Sikorsky’s Raider X compound coaxial helicopter and the Bell 360 Invictus, a single-main-rotor conventional helicopter. Both will carry internal, side-deploying weapons stores, but Raider X can be configured to carry troops while the 360 cannot.
“As we have requirements unique to SOF for the larger platform, we have similar requirements for the smaller platform,” Downer said. SOCOM needs a transportable future attack aircraft and aerial refueling capability, “but the key one is we want to be able to carry four troops, objective, six troops threshold inside the platform.
“That provides an interesting problem for us in the future where if they downselect to one of those solutions, if they’re not able to carry troops, then we might end up with a mixed fleet going forward with FARA aircraft to do the attack missions, and then the [Little Bird] or a future version of the [Little Bird] to do our assault missions.”