Some designs are just too good to die. The Hughes 369, or the OH-6 Cayuse when in uniform, is one of them. After 50 years of production, the “Little Bird” as it is known in Spec Ops circles, has reached a new level of capability with the AH-6i, which may soon get its baptism by fire at the hands of Saudi pilots in the skies above Yemen.
The AH-6i is one smart, nimble, observant, and heavily armed little battle chopper. It takes the best parts of the AH-6M Little Bird operated by the 160th SOAR 'Nightstalkers' and infuses it with the latest technologies. Many of these innovations are off-the-shelf components and developed from lessons learned over a decade and a half of warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The whole idea of the AH-6i is that it can give AH-64E Apache-like capabilities in a package that costs a fraction of the price – not just to purchase, but also to operate. In fact, this advanced version of the Little Bird has the exact same mission computer and systems integration as the Apache, along with a similar glass and touchscreen cockpit. This allows it to use the Apache's weapons, highly accurate navigational and battlefield management suite, and send video via its MX-15 electro-optical and targeting turret. It can also receive video from unmanned aircraft, other helicopters (including the Apache), or from ground-based command stations. Plus, missile launch detectors and countermeasure systems can be added and integrated into its mission computer in almost the same way as its bigger, badder brother.
The AH-6i even has a full set of custom "hands on collective and cyclic" controls, where the pilot can manipulate all of the aircraft's weapons and sensors without taking their hands off the controls. This is a huge advantage considering that the aircraft's small size and high maneuverability are key features when it comes to its survivability and effectiveness on the battlefield. It achieves this performance by being able to lift close to double its own weight, while still being able to hover at higher altitudes. Boeing claims it can hover out of ground effect at a 6,000-ft elevation with an ambient temperature of 95 degrees and a mission relevant payload.
Power is provided by a 650-HP Rolls-Royce 250-C30R/3M turbine engine and a composite six bladed rotor setup. Other enhancements to the aircraft's aerodynamics and tail rotor gives the helicopter snappier performance than any OH-6 derivative before it, along with a new vertical stabilizer and collective trim actuator for enhanced stability and control.
Probably the coolest thing about the AH-6i is the aircraft's versatility. It can carry AGM-114 laser guided Hellfire missiles, 70mm rockets and laser guided rockets, 7.62mm miniguns with a whopping 6,000 rounds of ammo, or hard hitting .50 caliber machine guns, including the GAU-19 gatling gun. Ammunition and extra gas is stored in the rear cabin, with one external tank fitted when any sort of gun is mounted on the aircraft's stub wings. Two tanks can be carried for unarmed scouting and surveillance missions.
AIM-92 Stinger air-to-air missiles can also be carried on the AH-6i. When paired with the helicopter's small visual signature and high maneuverability, the addition of the Sting makes it a deadly anti-helicopter asset.
When the AH-6i is not being used for reconnaissance or attack, it can carry commandos seated internally and externally on its trademark Mission Assault Planks. The Little Bird in this configuration is beloved by special operations personnel, as the helicopter can zoom in, land almost anywhere, and operators simply unbuckle and step off to hit their targets. No fast roping or long vulnerable hovering required.
The AH-6i can also be equipped with medivac pods. These long boxes are meant to get wounded soldiers out of dangerous combat situations and to a hospital unit as quickly as possible. A similar tactic was used during the Korean War, with Bell model 47s being equipped with litters to transport the wounded. Supplies and outsized cargo can also be carried in the pods.
When you add it all up, what you get in the AH-6i is an incredibly capable scout and reconnaissance bird, with a heavy-hitting attack capability for an aircraft designated as only a light attack helicopter. Additionally, it can provide special forces with insertion/extraction capabilities that the Little Bird has become so famous for. Even liaison duties are not off this little chopper's mission list as it's still at its core a direct evolution of the MD530F utility helicopter, and running costs are downright economical compared to larger twin-turbine military helicopters.
All this is had at a price of well below $10 million per helicopter, if you take Saudi Arabia's package costing $234 million for 24 of AH-6is, along with ground equipment, spares, and other key items. By comparison, an AH-64E Apache, which also uses the Hellfire for its hardest-hitting weapon, costs close to $40M per new-build aircraft. Also, the fact that the AH-6i was built with so much in common with the AH-64E makes them ideally suited to work together on the battlefield.
It's troubling that the US has disbanded its highly effective and battle proven scout helicopter force, the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior fleet, while other countries see the value and economics in a high-low attack and reconnaissance helicopter force mix. This is especially true for lower intensity conflicts, where fielding an AH-64 Apache force is tactical overkill and politically sensitive due to the Apache's legendary menacing looks and killer reputation.
Saudi Arabia is the first customer for the AH-6i, while Jordan's order apparently still remains in limbo. As technology has become smaller, lighter, and more effective, the cost-benefit analysis for heavy and expensive dedicated attack helicopters seems to become less favorable, except maybe for the most wealthy countries. The AH-6i remains one of the most attractive solutions for militaries that want the heavy hitting power of a Hellfire missile and the latest and greatest avionics, but the affordability and reliability of a commercially available helicopter.
Seeing that Saudi Arabia has just entered into an extremely complex war in Yemen, one that could last some time as a ground offensive seems imminent, the little AH-6i will have its work cut out for it shortly after its arrival in The Kingdom. Currently, Saudi Arabia has about 85 Apaches and a dozen Bell 406 Jet Ranger derived armed scout helicopters. That's a large force, but not by US standards. As a result, the addition of the AH-6i addition will be surely welcomed.
Seeing that Saudi Arabia is fighting with a large coalition of Sunni dominant Arab states, many of which are quite wealthy, the AH-6i could very well end up experiencing much wider export success in the region depending on how it performs if it sees combat.
Civilian MD530F by Alan Wilson and shot above by Dave1185, both via WikiCommons. All other photos public domain/manufacturer/DoD.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com