United States Marine Corps aviation in the Pacific is taking full advantage of the Bell AH-1Z Viper’s capabilities, and its new pairing with the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II.
In a media visit to Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron (HMLA)-169 in MCAS Futenma, Okinawa, Captain Daniel Kelly, AH-1Z pilot and the unit’s flight line officer in charge, told AIN that the introduction of the F-35B to the Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) gives the ability for the jets to jam and neutralize radar threats, giving the helicopters a higher survivability, and allowing them to perform their escort and close air support tasks. The powerful avionics of the F-35 are also able to oversee the battle and “manage” the helicopter assets below them. Moreover, the greater range of the F-35 compared with the AV-8B Harrier II means that the amphibious assault ship can be located at a greater stand-off range before deploying helicopters and amphibious vehicles.
Kelly also noted that the Viper’s Target Sight System (TSS) is “incredibly important,” and could provide target designation for the F-35 up to a 10-digit grid accuracy, which gives the jet the ability to release its munition from above thick cloud cover. While currently there is no datalink between the two platforms, Link 16 is expected to be integrated into the Viper by FY22/23 under the H-1 upgrade program, along with Digital Integrated Full Motion Video data transfer capability.
Capable of carrying the AIM-9 Sidewinder missile, the Viper also hones its air-to-air tactics with the USMC F-35Bs, as well as Boeing F/A-18s and other fast jets based in the region. Kelly said that the Sidewinder is also able to engage a ground target that is giving off “a significant heat signature.”
The attack helicopter mainly provides close air support for the amphibious force, as well as aerial escort for the UH-1Y and Bell-Boeing MV-22 Osprey assault platforms. While Kelly said that the mission profile has not expanded since the introduction of the AH-1Z "Zulus," the greater endurance and superior systems allow the latest version of the Cobra to perform its mission at a deeper level.
AH-1Zs are usually embarked on the San Antonio-class Landing Platform Docks when deployed with the expeditionary strike group. Corporal Zachary Potter, technician and flightline collateral duty quality assurance representative, said that the aircraft is able to sustain a 95 percent dispatch reliability, although this is maintained at 85 percent on a daily basis when ashore, after factoring scheduled maintenance. Potter said that the team is able to provide maintenance on the aircraft even when tightly packed in the ship’s hangar, thanks to the Viper’s built-in steps and easy-access panels. HMLA-169 has eight AH-1Zs and UH-1Ys at Futenma.