From the mountains of Afghanistan to the confines of America’s
cities, vertical takeoff-and-landing mobility will be essential
to U.S. special operations forces.
By definition, special operations are missions with high risk and
high operational or strategic payoff. They often are politically
sensitive. Objectives can be deep in hostile territory and protected
by mixed air defenses. Operational secrecy is essential to success,
and single aircraft or small formations must fly long distances
at night and low altitude to avoid detection.
Mission profiles consequently put a premium on performance and
take a toll on helicopter transmissions and other dynamic components.
They also generate extraordinary cockpit workload—manageable
only with highly trained crews and integrated avionics.
As it stands today, the special operations forces’ helicopter
fleet is due for modernization or replacement in coming years.
Each of the U.S. armed services has special-operations helicopters.
The U.S. Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment
operates MH-60K and MH-60L Black Hawks, MH-47D and MH-47E Chinooks,
and AH/MH-6J Little Birds.
The U.S. Air Force 20th and 21st Special Operations Squadrons fly
the MH-53M Pave Low IV.
The joint U.S. Special Operations Command routinely mixes the Army
and Air Force helicopters on missions such as the evacuation of
civilians from hotspots. Army Special Operations Chinooks relieved
Air Force Pave Lows stationed in Korea in July 2001.
Outside the Special Operations Command, Navy Reserve squadrons
HCS-4 and -5 provide special warfare support with the HH-60H Seahawk.
Aboard amphibious assault ships, less specialized but still specially
trained Marine Corps composite helicopter squadrons can use their
CH-53E Super Stallions to support Marine Expeditionary Units (Special
The Sikorsky MH-53M Pave Low IV helicopters in Air Force Special
Operations Squadrons are the same Super Jolly Green Giants first
sent to Vietnam in 1967. Today, the re-skinned, re-bladed and thoroughly
refurbished aircraft have night/adverse weather capability, integrated
aircraft survivability equipment, and digital connectivity.
The Pave Low III first introduced a forward-looking infrared (FLIR)
sensor and terrain following/terrain avoidance radar for combat
rescues in 1979. It became a Special Operations Command asset after
Navy minesweepers failed to rescue American hostages from Iran in
1980. The enhanced Pave Low III integrated the night/adverse weather
sensors with a sophisticated navigation/communications suite on
a 1553B databus. With their precision navigation capability, Air
Force Pave Lows led Army Apaches to make the opening shots of Desert
Storm in 1991.
Since then, the Air Force Special Operations Command has modernized
25 of 38 Pave Low IIIEs to MH-53M Pave Low IVs with the integrated
defensive avionics system/multi-mission advanced tactical terminal
(IDAS/MATT), made by Lockheed Martin. An MH-53M led an MH-60G Pave
Hawk rescue helicopter to the stealth fighter pilot shot down in
Kosovo in 1999. With digital connectivity and a digital map display,
the IDAS/MATT gives the Pave Low IV crew better situational awareness
to avoid enemy air defenses and take advantage of new intelligence.
At a gross weight of up to 50,000 pounds, the MH-53M carries up
to 37 troops or hook loads to 20,000 pounds. Air Force special-operations
pilots practice night aerial refuelings from HC-130P and MC-130E
tankers at altitudes less than 500 feet to avoid enemy air defenses.
Despite their robust capabilities, the hard-working Pave Low IVs
with their vintage radar and FLIR, have the highest maintenance
requirements in the Air Force special-operations inventory.
Even with their IDAS-integrated aircraft survivability suite, they
lack infrared engine exhaust suppressors that would help counter
shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles.
The Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) had planned to
buy 50 CV-22 tilt rotors to replace a variety of rotary- and fixed-wing
aircraft, including the MH-53M. Whatever the future AFSOC force
mix, the troubles of the Osprey have put Pave Low replacement plans
Unlike conventional Army cargo helicopter units, the Night Stalkers
of the U.S. Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment
use the Boeing-made Chinooks as assault transports to fast-rope
and fast-land troops, deploy loaded boats, and haul cargo too heavy
for the MH-60 Black Hawks. Unlike conventional Army units, the Night
Stalkers routinely refuel from C-130 Hercules tankers and fly from
The first modernized CH-47D—remanufactured from a Vietnam-era
Chinook—joined then-Task Force 160 in 1982. The unit’s
own systems integration and maintenance office ultimately gave the
MH-47D a Rockwell Collins cockpit management system, including a
weather radar and first-generation Hughes/Raytheon AAQ-16 thermal
The MH-47D operates at gross weights of 50,000 pounds and carries
up to 50 troops. Its wartime infiltration radius of around 300 nautical
miles can now be extended with air refueling. In 1988, two MH-47Ds
flew 490 miles at night to recover a Soviet Mi-24 Hind helicopter
from a remote African site.
By comparison, the MH-47E Special Operations Aircraft was designed
for special operations missions from the outset, with a Lockheed
Martin integrated avionics system—common to the MH-60K Black
Hawk. It also has a Raytheon APQ-174 TF/TA radar, Raytheon AAQ-16
FLIR, and a cockpit layout different from that of the MH-47D.
At a maximum gross weight of 54,000 pounds, the MH-47E with its
swollen sponsons carries twice the fuel of the MH-47D. It provides
a wartime infiltration radius of 415 nautical miles and is equipped
for air refueling. To hike hot-and-high performance and single-engine
emergency power, the E-Model Chinook introduced Honeywell T55-GA-714
engines up to 38 percent more powerful than the 712s originally
used in standard Army CH-47Ds. The 714 engines have since upgraded
the MH-47Ds. Similar 714A powerplants are being installed in all
U.S. Army Chinooks.
The 160th now operates 11 MH-47D and 25 MH-47E Chinooks at a high
operational tempo in the most difficult flight profiles. They require
mission ready rates of 85 percent—10 percent higher than that
expected from ordinary aviation units. The special operations Chinooks
and Black Hawks have a dedicated spare parts depot at Fort Campbell,
Kentucky, managed by the Boeing-Sikorsky Aircraft Support Company.
The last of 26 MH-47Es was delivered to Fort Campbell in May 1995.
However, both the MH-47D and MH-47E are due for modernization. The
two aircraft have dissimilar avionics and pose obsolescence problems
as replacement parts grow harder to get. An attrition replacement
for an MH-47E lost in a training accident in March 1996 provides
the opportunity to standardize the 160th to a common special operations
The modernized MH-47G has yet to be defined, but a CH-47D earmarked
for the 160th already has been inducted into the CH-47F improved
Chinook line. Preliminary plans blend MH-47E-like avionics with
the structural and systems improvements of the F-model. The Army
plans to upgrade 300 CH-47Ds to F-Model improved cargo helicopters
with a stiffer fuselage that reduces vibration and databus-equipped
cockpits. The first six aircraft off the line have been allocated
to the 160th SOAR.
With special-operations Chinooks busy elsewhere, six CH-47Ds inducted
from conventional Army units may be brought to a new MH-47G standard
with enlarged fuel sponsons, terrain-following/avoidance radar,
stiffened structures, marinized 714A engines, and common avionics,
including color multi-function displays.
Second generation FLIR technology now offers night sensors with
greater range and resolution. The Special Operations Command has
a requirement for an infrared suppressor to protect Chinooks. The
first MH-47G should be delivered in 2003 and could be followed by
MH-47Ds and MH-47Es modernized to common G standards. Depending
on Army and SOCOM requirements, the last six aircraft may return
to conventional units as CH-47Fs or bolster the Night Stalkers with
In addition to the MH-47s of the U.S. Army’s 160th SOAR,
British special forces use the Chinook HC.2s, in service with the
Royal Air Force. The RAF self-deployed four aircraft 3,000 miles
from the U.K., to Sierra Leone, for peacekeeping duties last year.
The last of seven or eight new Chinook HC.3s with Rockwell Collins
night/adverse weather avionics will leave Boeing’s Shreveport
Modification Center in late 2001and will assume the RAF special
Like the Chinook, the Sikorsky Black Hawk has been part of the 160th
SOAR since its inception. Black Hawks took special-operations units
to hide-sites deep in Iraq after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990
and extracted troops from Iraq under fire in 1991. They also were
casualties of the bloody Mogadishu firefight in 1993. Black Hawks
of the 160th SOAR have practiced military urban-warfare operations
in several American cities.
The basic UH-60A with General Electric T700-GE-700 engines carried
up to 16 combat troops, depending on fuel load, and could be equipped
with the AAQ-16 FLIR, 7.62 mm mini-guns, Fast-rope bars, and other
special-warfare equipment. The maximum infiltration radius was 358
nautical miles, with internal auxiliary tanks. The current MH-60L
Black Hawk—with more powerful 701C engines—has a maximum
takeoff weight of 20,500 pounds. With rockets, Hellfire or Maverick
missiles, and 30 mm cannon, it becomes the direct or defensive action
UH-60As and MH-60Ls of the 160th received a Rockwell Avionics cockpit
management system, a predecessor of the MH-60K integrated avionics
Development of the sophisticated MH-60K began in 1986, but the
Black Hawk special-operations version was not declared mission-ready
until October 1995. The air-refuelable night/adverse weather MH-60K
has both the AAQ-16 FLIR and Texas Instruments APQ-174 multi-mode
radar tied to the avionics system. The communications suite includes
the ARC-201 tactical radio, ARC-220 HF (high frequency) radio, and
ARC-210 satellite communications set.
Like the MH-47E cockpit, the MH-60K integrated avionics system
gives the pilot and co-pilot a visual representation of aircraft
systems, sensor imagery, navigation and communication functions,
aircraft survivability equipment, and diagnostics. With internal
auxiliary tanks, the infiltration radius without air refueling is
296 nautical miles. The cabin of the MH-60K sacrifices one troop
seat for an electronics rack, and an upturned external tank system
gives MH-60K gunners a clear field of fire.
Night/low altitude operations are planned to evade the enemy, but
the MH-60K also has a comprehensive aircraft survivability suite
to detect and confound air defense threats. Those threats have grown
more sophisticated and more diverse since the end of the Cold War.
The special operations Black Hawk is the first platform slated to
receive the ITT ALQ-211 Suite of Integrated Radio Frequency Countermeasures
(SIRFC) and the BAE Systems ALQ-212 Suite of Integrated Infrared
The 160th SOAR reportedly has 37 MH-60L and 23 MH-60K Black Hawks.
Like the Chinook fleet, the diversity of Black Hawk models poses
training and support challenges, and the avionics are facing component
obsolescence. Modernization schedules for special operations Black
Hawks have not been released, but the broader Army UH-60M/UH-60X
program provides hints.
Special Operations Black Hawks have flown at gross weights to 25,000
pounds. Driven in part by special operations requirements, Sikorsky
Aircraft began flying broad-chord, drooped-tip, high-lift composite
main rotor blades on a Black Hawk in 1993. The blades have since
been tested on an MH-60K, and they will go on new and remanufactured
UH-60Ms due off the production line in 2004.
A longer term UH-60X program after 2010 incorporates more powerful
engines, an upgraded transmission, and other changes for select
units. A modernized MH-60K/L could share a new avionics suite with
For light attack and assault companies of the 160th SOAR, the favored
helicopter is the Little Bird. Easy to deploy and tough to detect,
Little Birds—convertible AH-6J attack and MH-6J utility helicopters—remain
among the most versatile platforms for special operations forces.
About 40 Little Birds provide night reconnaissance, fire support,
and combat resupply.
The first Hughes Model 500D Little Birds were purchased in 1981,
and Boeing continues to provide support through the commercial MD500/600
product line, which was sold to the Dutch firm MDHelicopters Inc.
in 1999. AH-6s were deployed by C-130 cargo planes to fight for
the first time in Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada, in October 1983.
Little Birds attacked Iran’s Ajr as it lay mines in the Persian
Gulf in 1987, strafed the headquarters of the Panamanian defense
Forces in 1989, and were rumored to be flying over Baghdad in 1991.
The Little Bird can be pushed down the ramp of a C-130 by a single
soldier and be ready to fly in seven minutes. The MH-6J carries
up to six assault troops or two snipers on external bench seats.
With a folding weapons carrier, the AH-6J can be armed with Hellfire
missiles, rocket pods, and 7.62 mm or 50-caliber guns. Despite its
small size, the Little Bird has a sophisticated mission suite including
satellite communications capability.
Special operations aviators have long used a commercial flight
management system that lets the Little Bird pilot choose from various
navigation aids, such as a Global Positioning Satellite receiver.
The system stores mission plans and waypoints, calculates range
and endurance, and shows flight data on a night-vision compatible
display. An thermal imager provides a standoff sighting system for
all the weapons, and a laser designator for Hellfire missiles.
Today’s AH-6J has a maximum takeoff weight of 3,950 pounds.
The MH-6M mission enhanced little bird currently undergoing flight
tests at the Army Aviation Technical Test Center has a gross weight
of 4,700 pounds. The stretched Little Bird combines the six-bladed
rotor system of the MD600 commercial helicopter with a noise-reducing
four-bladed tail rotor and a mix of engine and transmission improvements.
The Special Operations Command also is pursuing a cockpit miniaturization
upgrade, conformal fuel tanks, and second-generation FLIR for the
Navy Special Warfare
Navy special warfare support and strike rescue/recovery are the
specialties of Naval Reserve Squadrons HCS-4 and HCS-5. Both fly
the HH-60H Seahawk developed from the SH-60F antisubmarine warfare
The stripped-down Seahawk has no radar or sonar, but it retains
a 1553B databus architecture able to support the Texas Instruments
AAS-44 FLIR and Hellfire missile. It also has engine infrared suppressors
and other aircraft survivability equipment.
The Navy bought 42 HH-60Hs between 1989 and 1996 to outfit the
Reserve squadrons and provide rescue aircraft for active-duty squadrons
on aircraft carriers. With their Seahawk lineage, the special operations
helicopters are compatible with small ships. They operated from
land bases during Operation Desert Storm.
The HH-60H was designed to haul seven or eight SEALs (Sea-Air-Land
commandos) plus a crew of two. Its range is 200 nautical miles.
It can insert the team in a hot-and-high landing zone. However,
compared to the Army Black Hawk, the small cabin doors of the HH-60H
are less appealing to heavily loaded troops who have to get in and
out quickly. Seahawk landing gear—designed for deck landings—is
also less crashworthy than the energy-absorbing Black Hawk gear.
Navy helicopter modernization plans will give naval reserve squadrons
an aircraft that is better suited for special operations.
The Navy’s helicopter master plan introduces the multi-mission
MH-60S Seahawk to replace the aging CH-46 in the vertical replenishment
mission. It also provides a marinized special-warfare support Seahawk
equipped with the wider cabin doors and crashworthy landing gear
of the Black Hawk. The new helicopter—already in production—also
provides a databus and multifunction cockpit displays compatible
with thermal imagers, digital maps, and other mission equipment.
Plans call for the acquisition of 38 HH-60Hs by 2007, for combat
search and rescue, and special warfare support roles.
Although the Marines do not have a separate special operations unit,
they do organize, equip, and train amphibious Marine Expeditionary
Units (special operations capable) to penetrate enemy territory
and perform covert reconnaissance and other operations, including
tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel (TRAP).
The most capable transport helos in the deployed MEU(SOC) composite
squadron are four Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallions. CH-53Es enabled
the 24th MEU TRAP team to recover Air Force Capt. Scot O’Grady
from enemy territory in Bosnia in 1995.
CH-53E deliveries to the U.S. Marine Corps ended in 1999 with the
A portion of the Super Stallion fleet received the helicopter night
vision system modification with AAQ-16 FLIRs and limited cockpit
upgrades. The CH-53E crew-station remains workload-intensive for
special-warfare missions. Sikorsky is negotiating with Turkey to
build new CH-53Es with integrated avionics. A service life extension
program proposed for the U.S. Marine Super Stallions several years
ago could provide an opportunity to modernize the CH-53E cockpit.
The Marines, Air Force, and Navy all had special operations plans
for the Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey tilt rotor. With its integrated
avionics, even the basic Marine MV-22 would give expeditionary units
a night/adverse weather assault platform. With a single air refueling,
the Air Force CV-22 would self-deploy 2,700 nautical miles. Unlike
helicopters disassembled to fit jet transports, the tilt rotor would
arrive ready to fly. The 250-knot CV-22 also promised to fly missions
up to 1,100 nautical mile radius under cover of a single night,
eliminating the risky daytime hide-sites needed for helicopters.
The speed and range of the planned HV-22 offered the Navy long-term
improvements in its strike rescue and special warfare support capabilities.
The Air Force Special Operations Command planned 50 CV-22Bs to
replace 89 aircraft, including MH-53J/M and MH-60G helicopters and
MC-130E and HC-130P fixed-wing turboprops, with initial operational
capability in 2004. After training squadron VMMT-204 achieved IOC
in 2001, the Marines planned to outfit some of their 325 MV-22s
with the additional wing tanks of the CV-22 for use by the special-operations
MEUs. The Navy planned 48 HV-22s delivered between 2010 and 2013.
The December 2000 crash of the eighth MV-22B put tilt rotor plans
on undetermined hold. But even if the CV-22 had been cleared for
production, the aircraft would have not been ready for the special-warfare
units in Operation Enduring Freedom.