By the end of this month Boeing will—if everything goes to plan—have delivered the first AH-6i Little Bird light attack/reconnaissance helicopter to inaugural customer Saudi Arabia, which is the recipient of a new wave of U.S. weaponry. The manufacturer has also established a contract outline with the U.S. Army to quickly supply up to 72 Little Birds to unspecified foreign buyers.
During a press trip Boeing (Chalet B6, Outdoor Exhibit G4) hosted at its helicopter assembly facility in Mesa, Arizona, on June 7, reporters viewed the first AH-6i planned for delivery to the Saudi Arabia National Guard (SANG). The helicopter—numbered 61001—was undergoing the final week of the build process, prior to being flight tested and delivered. The expression “God Bless You” was painted on its fuselage, which is typical for Saudi aircraft.
Seven of 24 AH-6is specified in a 2014 foreign military sale (FMS) were cycling through assembly. Fuselages for the first AH-6is manufactured for Saudi Arabia are being provided by Mesa-based MD Helicopters, with sub-assembly taking place in Monterrey,Mexico.
The Defense Contract Management Agency, a component agency of the U.S. Department of Defense, will perform acceptance flight testing of the helicopters before turning them over to the Saudi government. It is expected that several Saudi pilots will train in Mesa, as well as pilots who will then serve as instructors in SaudiArabia.
Single-engine AH-6is can be fitted with a combination of: semi-active laser Hellfire missiles; 70 mm rockets; M-134 mini gun; and .50 caliber GAU-19B machine gun. The aircraft’s integrated digital cockpit and mission computer were derived from those in the AH-64 Apache, and it carries an L-3 Wescam MX-15Di sensor turret with laser rangefinder/designator and laser pointer.
In April, the U.S. Army issued a “sources sought notice” requesting information on industry’s capability to produce 72 AH-6is over a three-year period. The first 12 production aircraft, spares and equipment would likely be directed to Boeing “through a binding FMS letter of offer and acceptance (LOA) executed bilaterally between the U.S. government and the foreign country customer who is funding the effort,” according to the notice. The remaining 60 aircraft would be subject to “foreign country customers” executing LOAs for their production and delivery.
Mark Ballew, Boeing director global sales and marketing for attack helicopters, said the notice sets out to establish a contract vehicle to expedite FMS sales of the helicopters. He acknowledged that Jordan has previously expressed an interest in acquiring Little Birds, but he declined to identify other potential customers.
The first AH-6i deliveries originated in a series of U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia announced in October 2010. The largest component of the package—valued at $29.4 billion—called for the supply of 84 Boeing F-15SA fighters and the upgrade of 70 existing F-15S strike fighters to the SA standard. Boeing rolled out the first F-15SA from its St. Louis facility in April 2013, and U.S. Air Force plans called for delivering the fighters to Saudi Arabia between 2015 and 2019.
Simultaneous with the F-15 announcement, the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified Congress of an estimated $25.6 billion sale to Saudi Arabia of 36 AH-64E Apaches, 36 AH-6is, 72 Sikorsky UH-60M Blackhawks and 12 MD Helicopters MD-530Fs for operation by the SANG. Separate sales for $3.3 billion and $2.2 billion called for supplying 24 AH-64Es to the Royal Saudi Land Forces, which has operated Apaches since the 1990s, and 10 to the Royal Guard.
Boeing started delivering AH-64Es—the latest model Apache—to Saudi Arabia in early 2014. The Army awarded the manufacturer a $234 million FMS contract in August 2014 to supply 24 AH-6is to the SANG, the first customer of the light attack helicoptervariant. Boeing started final assembly of the Little Birds in December 2015.