The ‘Ferrari’ of US special-operations helicopters may soon be headed out of service

Army AH-6 Little Bird helicopter fires rockets
A US Army AH-6 Little Bird fires at targets during an offensive air support exercise, April 5, 2016. US Marine Corps/Staff Sgt. Artur Shvartsberg
  • For 40 years, the AH-6 and MH-6 Little Birds have earned legendary status in the special-operations community.
  • The helicopters have proven able to attack targets and transport commandos on all kinds of missions.
  • But the Army and the special-operations community will soon have decide if the Little Bird has any life left.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

US Special Operations Command is trying to decide what to do with the Little Bird, one of its oldest but most legendary special-operations helicopters.

The 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, also known as the “Night Stalkers,” uses two variants of the Little Bird: the AH-6, which is the attack/assault version, and the MH-6, which is the assault/transport version of the egg-shaped chopper.

The AH-6 conducts precision close air support and assaults in support of US special-operations units. The MH-6, which is the unarmed version, transports commandos to target.

Their main customers are Joint Special Operations Command’s special missions units – the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 – and the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment.

An egg you don’t want to mess with

Army AH-6 Little Bird helicopter
A US Army AH-6 Little Bird during an offensive air support exercise, April 5, 2016. US Marine Corps/Staff Sgt. Artur Shvartsberg

The AH-6 can carry several weapon systems, including the M134 Minigun, which can shoot 6,000 rounds a minute; a GAU-19 .50-caliber Gatling gun; 8cm Hydra 70 rockets; and even Hellfire air-to-surface and Stinger air-to-air missiles.

What makes the Little Bird extremely valuable is its small size and agility. In the hands of skilled pilots, the Little Bird can land almost anywhere or target almost anything with impunity.

The assault/transport version can surgically insert and extract troops, provide a great aerial platform for snipers, and even carry motorcycles.

The Night Stalkers operate about 50 Little Birds of both variants.

MH-6M Little Bird helicopter Army Rangers
A MH-6M Little Bird transports Army Rangers during a rapid-deployment exercise, November 14, 2018. US Army

“It is an amazing helicopter, highly maneuverable and fully aerobatic. That’s cool for a helo. Flying the AH-6 is like driving a Ferrari – no other helo compares,” retired Chief Warrant Officer 4 Greg Coker told Insider.

Coker, a Night Stalker pilot and author of “Death Waits in the Dark,” served for 30 years and completed 11 combat deployments.

“Both [AH-6 and MH-6] are small aircraft that can be rapidly transported using many different means. No other helicopter can do this. The AH-6 can make multiple attacks due to the maneuverability unlike the Apache, Cobra, or Hind,” Coker said, referring to other US attack helicopters and their Russian counterpart, the Mi-24 Hind.

The Little Bird sports a digital glass cockpit, which is night-vision compatible, that allows the pilots to monitor their critical displays without looking down.

An uncertain future

Army 160th SOAR AH-6 Little Bird helicopter
A AH-6 Little Bird is unloaded from an Air Force Special Operations Command MC-130H during a rapid-deployment exercise, August 29, 2017. US Army

Talks about retiring the venerable Little Bird are not new. In 2019, a SOCOM acquisition executive described plans to upgrade or retire the Little Birds by the mid-2020s.

In the early 2000s, the Little Bird fleet went through a modernization under the Mission Enhanced Little Bird program, which upgraded the rotor, enlarged the doors, and improved the landing gear.

Later this year, the Night Stalkers will receive the first Block III version of the Little Bird, which will come with a new airframe, better fuel efficiency, and more powerful rotor. These updates will reset the clock on the Little Bird’s structural service life.

But SOCOM is still debating whether to further upgrade the helicopter with a potential Block IV version or replace it altogether with a variant from the Army’s Future Vertical Lift program, which seeks to upgrade all of the Army’s light-, medium-, and heavy-lift choppers.

The Army plans to award a contract for its next helicopters in late 2024. SOCOM may then take another year to decide between upgrading the Little Bird or pursuing a new chopper, according to Aviation Week.

“I do not feel that there is an airframe that can replace the MD-530 series helicopters,” Coker said, referring to the helicopters on which the AH-6 and MH-6 are based.

“We went through an upgrade in 2003, from the AH-6J to the AH-6M, adding a glass cockpit, four-blade tail rotor, and six-blade main rotor – the thing is a beast!” Coker added.

A special-operations veteran

MH-6M Little Bird helicopter Army Rangers
A MH-6M inserts a team of Army Rangers using the Fast-Rope Insertion/Extraction System. US Army/Pfc. Gabriel Segura

The Little Bird is now an old platform with basic technology compared to other advanced aircraft in use, but it has been at the tip of the US special-operations spear for close to 40 years.

With AH-6s providing cover, MH-6 choppers transported Delta Force operators and Rangers to target during the invasion of Grenada in 1983.

During the invasion of Panama in 1989, Night Stalkers in Little Birds evacuated CIA operative Kurt Muse and his Delta Force rescuers from Modelo Prison in Panama City.

During the Battle of Mogadishu – also known as the “Black Hawk Down” incident – Little Birds saw extensive action and had a key role in the survival of the beleaguered Delta Force operators and Rangers.

In the early days of the war in Afghanistan, Night Stalkers flying the AH-6 conducted some impressive missions, hunting Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters on their own, often expending all their choppers’ ammunition and having to use their personal firearms, or even grenades lobbed from the cockpit, against the enemy.

Unmanned Little Bird helicopter
The Unmanned Little Bird, a smaller variant of the A/MH-6M that can be controlled by a pilot or piloted remotely, June 16, 2009. US Navy/Capt. Keith Stevenson

In Iraq, the Little Bird was the go-to choice for direct-action raids in Iraqi cities because of its flexibility and maneuverability, allowing Night Stalkers to put operators virtually anywhere.

During the Battle of Haditha Dam in 2003, AH-6s supporting a Delta Force and Ranger task force against vastly superior Iraqi forces got their rotor blades shot off but kept on flying.

“Our crew chiefs put 161km-an-hour tape on the blade and told us to fly it and watch it. And it worked. It’s a tough aircraft,” Coker said.

Little Birds, specifically the MH-6, are regularly seen buzzing buildings in big American cities during exercises, often causing confusion and even concern among civilians. But that training is key to maintaining the pilots’ edge for counterterrorism and hostage-rescue missions.

The aging Little Bird can seem outdated in the age of fifth-generation stealth fighters and unmanned aerial vehicles – a Little Bird variant has even been modified to fly as a UAV – but its effectiveness hasn’t been diminished by its years, and it remains universally loved by its pilots and crews and by commandos on the ground.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.