A new unmanned version of the MD Helicopters MD 500 was a surprise at the recent Seoul International Aerospace and Defence Exhibition (ADEX 2015). It was displayed by Korean Air Aerospace Division (KAL-ASD), a manufacturing division of the airline, which was the original builder under license of Korea’s MD 500s. KAL-ASD has also several UAVs. The new craft is dubbed the Korean Air Unmanned System-Vertical Helicopter (KUS-VH).
This new system is the result of a cooperation with Boeing stemming from South Korea’s purchase of AH-64E Guardian attack helicopters. As an offset agreed as part of the 2013 deal, Boeing signed a memorandum of understanding to convert the Republic of Korea (RoK) Army’s fleet of MD 500s, thought to number up to 175 examples, to unmanned configuration. Korean officials witnessed a demonstration of Boeing’s similar H-6U Unmanned Little Bird (ULB) in the U.S. in 2012.
The KAL-ASD project seems to be an alternative proposal, which unnlike Boeing’s ULB is completely unmanned rather than optionally piloted. The ULB is also unarmed, whereas the KUS-VH displayed at ADEX was fitted with a 2.75-inch (70 mm) rocket pod on the port side and a launcher for twin AGM-118 Hellfire missiles on the starboard side. An unidentified EO/IR sensor was mounted under the nose and all the cockpit transparencies were painted over or blanked off.
Roles envisioned for the KUS-VH include ISR, attack, aerial delivery, coast guard and amphibious landing support missions. The aircraft could also serve as an emergency reinforcement to back up manned helicopter units. It could operate alone or in conjunction with manned attack helicopters. A KUS-VH unit would be two to four aircraft and sensor packages, a ground control system and a ground support system.
Advantages of the modification would include a cost-effective use of existing obsolescent assets that could be fitted with advanced avionics and sensors and fielded in large numbers. A maiden flight is anticipated in 2016, followed by demonstrations for the Korean military. KAL-ASD is open to the idea of export sales or conversions, but for the time being is focused on the domestic market. A request for proposals from the RoK government for an unmanned scout helicopter is expected in late 2016 or early 2017.
North Korea also has a substantial fleet of MD 500 variants, having acquired 86 (then) Hughes 500D and E models through commercial sale via a middleman in the early 1980s. They were barely seen again until several appeared at the 2013 parade marking the 60th anniversary of the Korean armistice.