The helicopter, which traces its roots to a 60-year-old design, is still sought after internationally among stiff competition
Nearly 61 years to the day since its first flight, the legendary UH-1 is still being exported to militaries abroad. Of course, the newest variant of the UH-1, the UH-1Y “Venom,” is very much a different helicopter than its grandfather, having far more in common with the more modern but still dated Twin Huey Super Cobra. Nevertheless, with the news that the US government approved the sale of UH-1Ys to the Czech Republic, it’s safe to say that Hueys are still in demand in an age when the field of light to medium militarized utility helicopters is crowded to say the least.
Under the Foreign Military Sale (FMS) deal, a dozen UH-1Y helicopters will be sold to the Czech Republic, including spares, support, mission-related equipment, and training. The deal will include 25 T-700 GE 401C engines, Brite Star II infrared and electro-optical sensor turrets, AN/AAR-47 missile warning and laser detection systems, AN/ALE-47s countermeasure (flare and chaff) dispensers, AN/APR-38 radar warning receivers, a yet-to-be-identified electronic warfare suite, helmet-mounted displays, and M134 GAU-17 7.62mm mini-guns, M240 7.62mm machine guns, and M3M GAU-21 .50 caliber chain guns. The total cost of the contract is $575 million.
So, what we have here is an end-to-end type of sale where sustent, support systems, training, and pretty much everything else needed to operate the helicopters over a period of time is included in a lump contract. In other words, no, each helicopter does not cost $48 million. The new helicopters will replace a portion of the country’s legacy fleet of Eastern Bloc helicopters, including the Mi-2 and Mi-8/17.
This may be the UH-1Y’s first export customer, but its close cousin, the AH-1Z Viper, is now flying with Pakistani forces—a total of 12 are on order. And both helicopters, which share a high degree of commonality and have a slew of USMC-derived tactics that exploit the synergies found by operating both helicopters together, have other prospects for further export potential.
Poland’s Poleska Grupa Zbrojeniowa in particular has worked out details to cooperate with Bell on both the AH-1Z and UH-1Y programs. According to a press release from Bell dated July 25th, 2017, this is how the relationship is expected to pan out:
“Pursuant to the LOI, Poleska Grupa Zbrojeniowa and Bell Helicopter will have discussions regarding the knowledge that may be transferred from the American partner to Polish companies in the arms industry, as well as the possible scope of production and maintenance work which PGZ group companies may be allowed to perform autonomously if the Ministry of National Defense purchases Bell AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters and Bell UH-1Y Venom utility helicopters.
“The Letter of Intent that has been signed gives Poleska Grupa Zbrojeniowa an opportunity to implement world-class helicopter technologies in our factories. I am glad that PGZ group has taken another step in its business relationship with Bell, which will hopefully continue to grow stronger and stronger in the future. Equipping the Polish Armed Forces with state-of-the-art utility and attack helicopters is one of the priorities in the plan to modernize the Polish army. It is our goal to provide the Polish Armed Forces with top-class equipment, which significantly increases Poland’s defense capabilities,” said Błażej Wojnicz, President of the Management Board of PGZ S.A.
“We strongly believe this step with PGZ provides a solid basis for further relationships and shows Bell Helicopter’s commitment to supporting Poland’s military objectives and desire for industry growth. Being the newest attack and utility helicopters available on the market, the H-1 program gives our potential industry partners such as PGZ a significant area for cooperation,” said Vice President of International Military Business for Bell Helicopter Rich Harris. “The AH-1Z and UH-1Y together provide a common strength that offers the most effective and efficient means of accomplishing the missions in Poland.”
Alright, I understand. While it hasn’t resulted in firm orders from the Polish Ministry of National Defense, there is a plan underway to renew the country’s rotary-wing fleet, so orders could be coming in the not-so-distant future. These orders may come with heavy industrial offsets and some form of technological exchange. Another Polish aerospace firm, PZL, has a similar relationship with Lockheed/Sikorsky for the H-60/S-70 Black Hawk, and this includes a proposed locally assembled gunship variant. With this in mind, the two firms seem to be positioning for what could be a fierce competition for the Polish military’s rotary-wing future. Romania has a similar agreement with Bell as well, although like Poland, orders have yet to officially materialize.
The proposed gunship variant of the PZL Black Hawk, PZL/Lockheed/Sikorsky, could lead to additional sales, especially now that the Czech Republic’s order has been approved by the U.S. State Department. The latest iterations of the Huey family offer a highly mature and low-risk solution to counter an increasing threat from Russian armor. And having nearly 85% commonality between their combat utility helicopter and attack helicopter types is appealing for cash-strapped militaries that see their aging ex-Soviet-era fleet of hardware wearing out, with the geopolitical realities making further big arms deals with Russia impossible.
The UH-1Y, in particular, is an interesting mix of an old baseline design and new technology. It can be used for many missions, including combat search and rescue, infiltration and extraction, reconnaissance, utility support, liaison duties, close air support, and the list goes on. It can also be used as a gunship, and with laser-guided rockets becoming all the rage, it will have a relatively deep magazine capable of precision attack, allowing it to perform more traditional close air support functions. So, there is a lot of bang for the buck to be had with the ultimate of all Hueys, and the aircraft is optimized to be reliable while operating in the field, under austere conditions.
MARSOC operators practice boarding the UH-1Y via rope ladder, USMC.
Other countries, such as Thailand and Morocco, also have interest in these helicopters, and Bell has formally pitched the AH-1Z to Australia in a bid to solve its reconnaissance and attack helicopter woes, as well as the UH-1Y as a special operations platform.
With all this in mind, even though the UH-1Y and AH-1Z have been flying operationally for nearly a decade, a rapid blossoming on the export market may be just on the horizon. And that is really an impressive possibility as the Huey enters into its sixth decade of slapping the air into submission in some very rough neighborhoods around the globe.