🔷 Nuclear Helicopter Saga

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U.S. Air Force

The Nuclear Helo Saga

For all the things the tech-centric US Air Force is good at—buying helicopters isn’t one of them. A couple months back, we told you about the CSAR saga. Here’s the other one we promised to unpack.

Nukes & VIPs

When you think of the Huey helicopter and the military, the Air Force is one of the last things that probably pops into your mind. Fun fact: The Air Force has a fleet of 63 UH-1N Iroquois helicopters, aka Hueys.

This fleet has 2 main missions: ICBM security & support and hauling VIPs around the DC area. And if “Huey” elicits thoughts of the Vietnam War (or the urge to say “get to the choppa!”), that checks—these Air Force helos are 50 years old.

How it Started

The effort to replace the UH-1N fleet started in 2007 with requirements to buy 66 helos. This was merged into a unified effort to do all the Air Force helicopters in a program called Common Vertical Lift Support Platform.

A big part of this program was Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR), and the idea was that the Huey replacement would be derived from whatever platform won the CSAR-X program. Unfortunately, CSAR-X died in 2009, and sequestration killed CVLSP in 2013.

Try Again

In 2015 the Air Force revived it, but as a dedicated UH-1N replacement program. It took 2 years to release a call for proposals, and after some speed bumps (including a short-lived idea to fund a stop-gap solution), a victor was declared.

Boeing-Leonardo won the $2.4 billion replacement contract for up to 84 MH-139 Grey Wolfs, a helicopter based on the AgustaWestland AW139, an Italian civilian chopper.

Progress hit a snag in 2021 due to FAA certification issues—Boeing had to redesign one of the nose sensor fairings because it disrupted airflow to the helicopter’s pitot tubes.

As that was getting cleared up and the program neared a production decision in 2022, the buy rate was cut from 84 to 80. The following year, it was again reduced, to 74 MH-139s.

Big Cut

In March 2024, the Air Force revealed yet another cut, and it’s a big one: The MH-139 Grey Wolf fleet was being cut to 42 aircraft (36 production + 6 test), and the number of bases that will host the new chopper was reduced to the 3 ICBM bases (11 helos at each base) and a training location (Maxwell AFB, AL).

While this production cut saved $1.1 Billion, it caused the price per helicopter to soar due to how developmental and support costs are factored in—the smaller the fleet, the fewer aircraft to spread the cost across.

The result: the $20m flyaway cost for a military variant of a $12m helicopter didn’t change, but the gross unit cost went from $36m to $80m each…for a helicopter that will never leave the continental US.

What Now

This week, the Air Force awarded a contract for 7 more choppers, bringing the total bought to 26 Grey Wolfs. How many will they end up buying? 42? Who knows.

As for those UH-1Ns not being replaced by the MH-139 (i.e., the VIP and non-nuclear base support missions), that’s still a problem, and they aren't getting any younger. Eventually, there will be another Huey replacement effort—may the odds ever be in the Air Force’s favor.

Gen. John Hyten said it best: “We’ve been building combat helicopters for a long time in this country, I don’t understand why the heck it is so hard to buy a helicopter.”

In That Number

19

The Air Force decided not to repair a B-2 Spirit stealth bomber that was involved in a mishap because of the costs and complexities involved, and instead, it decided to divest the aircraft. This reduces the total fleet to 19 B-2s in service.

TRIVIA

Today is Mother’s Day in the US, and since you’re reading about it here—yep, there is a military connection. America’s Mother’s Day started as an effort to improve living conditions but evolved into caring for wounded soldiers and promoting peace during what war?

A) Revolutionary War
B) War of 1812
C) Civil War
D) World War I

On the Radar

US Central Command released pictures of the Air Force’s ULTRA drone, the first disclosure of the drone operational deployed. ULTRA (Unmanned Long-endurance Tactical Reconnaissance Aircraft) is built by DZYNE Technologies and does precisely what its name implies—it flies for 80 hours and carries a 450lb payload.

  • The Merge’s Take: Sources tell us that ULTRA has 3x the range but just 20% of the cost of the MQ-9. The MQ-9 can carry much more weight (800lb internal / 3,000lb external), but ULTRA seems to fill an important gap between Group 3 and Group 3 ISR drones. More importantly, it went from concept to first flight in under a year—so we hear. 😉

 

Replicator keeps trickling news. The Pentagon’s ambitious program to field thousands of drones by next August will include AeroVironment’s Switchblade-600 loitering munition, a batch of uncrewed surface vehicles, and a counter-drone system. As the $500m pot of money starts to be deployed, a more specific industrial goal was also revealed: supercharge production 3-8X for programs in Replicator.

  • The Merge’s Take: We’re still bearish that the program will deliver on time—it burned a ton of time on administrative in-decision. That said, Replicator 2.0 is already taking shape and will include the enablers to make Replicator 1.0 a credible capability: autonomy and command and control.

 

Privateer raised a $56.5 million Series A round and acquired Orbital Insight. Privateer is a space traffic management startup with satellite-tracking software; Orbital Insight has a search engine for recently captured satellite imagery.

  • The Merge’s Take: Keep an eye on this company; it’s probably going places, and we’re basing this off of Privateer’s name and logo. We’d normally scoff at this approach, except they’re likely inspired by Apple’s (yes, that Apple) iconic pirate flag, and we wouldn’t usually jump to conclusions by comparing the performance of the two—except that Privateer is co-founded by Steve Wozniak, one of Apple’s famous co-founders.

They Said It
“I would not categorize the F-35 as a paperweight.”

— Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, responding to a question during a Congressional hearing critical of the jet’s cost and reliability.

Knowledge Bombs

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ANSWER
C, the Civil War.