Military, Again: Afghan AF Picks, Arms MD-530 Helicopters
In March 2011, MD Helicopters, Inc. in Mesa, AZ won a competition for the Afghan Air Force that could reach as many as 54 helicopters over the life of the 4 year contract, giving it an implicit value of up to $180 million. Discussions with MD Helicopters confirmed that these are MD 530Fs, designed for high altitude and/or hot weather operations, where thinner air costs helicopters some of their lift.
The MD 530F uses Rolls Royce’s 650 shp 250-C30 engine, instead of the 500E’s 450-shp 250-C20R. That drives a 5-bladed set of main-rotor blades that have been extended 6 inches, along with lengthened tail rotors on a correspondingly longer tail boom. In a typical working configuration, at a design gross weight of 3,100 pounds/ 1,406 kg and a useful load of over 1,509 pounds/ 684 kg, it can hover out-of-ground effect at 11,600 feet/ 3,536m (ISA + 20°C). An optional cargo hook is rated for 2,000 pounds/ 907 kg, and the helicopter also has a flat aft cargo compartment floor for internal loads. These may be training helicopters, but they can be repurposed for light utility tasks. MD Helicopter designs are not unknown in the military market.
MD’s Military Rise, Fall… and Rise?
Hughes’ OH-6 Cayuse/”Loach” was legendary as a light utility helicopter and gunship. OH-6s still serve with some militaries, their AH-6J/M “Little Bird” descendant is still used as a light gunship by US Special Forces’ 160th SOAR, and the MD500/530 Defender series of light attack helicopters is still in operation around the world in Israel, South Korea, and elsewhere.
The purchase and breakup of Hughes Helicopter into Boeing (AH-64 Apache, AH-6 Little Bird) and MD (civilian helicopters) badly hurt this helicopter family’s global momentum and presence, as Boeing chose to focus on the AH-64 Apache as its military offering. After its 2005 purchase and recapitalization by Patriarch Partners, MD tried to re-enter the light military segment, but losses in the US Army’s ARH armed reconnaissance and LUH light utility competitions left them still looking for a new military foothold.
While Mexico’s Navy uses the innovative MD Explorer, whose quieter NOTAR rotorless tail design sharply lowers the advance warning given to its targets, other military export orders have been slim. The Afghan order could reverse that trend, and the fleet will now be used well beyond the primary trainer role, re-establishing MD Helicopters as a global competitor in the light utility space.
MD Helicopters has a July 2010 Memorandum of Understanding with Boeing for the AH-6i Light Attack Helicopter [PDF], which has been selected by Jordan and bought by Saudi Arabia. At the same time, the firm is developing their own MD-530G armed scout variant, and the Afghans have given them a contract to apply the upgrade to their fleet.
MD-530G modifications begin with upgraded landing skids that can handle 3,750 pounds maximum weight. A Rhode & Schwarz M3AR tactical radio, Robertson fuel system, and Kinetic Defense ballistic armor panels follow. Mission equipment includes L-3 Wescam’s MX-10 day/night surveillance & targeting turret, and MACE Aviation’s Extended Range Weapons Wing (ER2W) with up to 4 weapon stations, linked to a MOOG Storage Management System (SMS) and other required electronics. Initial weapon options will involve Dillon Aero’s multi-barrel M134D-H 7.62mm Minigun on the inside 2 hardpoints. Possibilities for the wingtip hardpoints include FN Herstal’s HMP-400 12.7mm Heavy Machine Gun Pod (400 rounds), FN’s RMP 12.7mm Rocket Machine Gun Pod (250 rounds + 3 rockets), or 7-shot 70mm rocket pods. Raytheon’s laser-guided 70mm TALON rockets can be carried on FN’s RMP, or in Arnold Defense’s M260 pod.
MD’s main global competitors are armed variants of the Bell 407, variants of Eurocopter’s EC145 and EC635 – and for advanced militaries, armed VT-UAVs like Northrop Grumman’s MQ-8 Fire Scout.
Contracts & Key Events
March 12/18: Armed ISR order Orbital ATK has landed a $86.4 million contract to supply the Afghan Air Force with armed intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft. The agreement covers the delivery of an AC-208 Eliminator aircraft with delivery to be completed by June 2019 after work at Forth Worth, Texas. More than $42.3 million will be obligated to Orbital ATK from fiscal 2017 Afghan security forces funds and the sale involves pseudo foreign military sales. Orbital ATK advertises the AC-208 Eliminator as a mini-gunship equipped with 70mm (2.75in) guided rockets and Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire missiles. The aircraft also comes with sensors, target designators, data links and self-protection systems.
January 3/18: New Aircraft-Potential Contract Orbital ATK will deliver seven armed Cessna AC-208 Caravan aircraft to the Afghan National Army under a USAF awarded contract, if no suitable alternatives are received by January 12. The notice was posted on December 27, and invited comments on a plan to award the contract to Orbital ATK without a competition, with non-American bids excluded on security grounds. Orbital advertises the AC-208 Eliminator as a mini-gunship equipped with 70mm (2.75in) guided rockets and Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, as well as sensors, target designators, data links and self-protection systems. If the deal goes ahead, the seven Cessnas will add to the 208 aircraft already supplied by the Department of Defense to the Afghan military and police between Fiscal 2007 and 2016, according to a 10 August report by the US Government Accountability Office. Kabul already uses unarmed C-208 turboprops for cargo and utility transport duties.
September 11/17: The US Department of Defense (DoD) has awarded MD Helicopters a $1.39 billion contract to provide 150 MD 530F Cayuse Warrior light utility helicopters to the government of Afghanistan. The deal includes maintenance, support services and pilot training. Production sites and funding under the foreign military sales program (FMS) will be determined by each order as it is requested, with a scheduled delivery date of August 31, 2022. It is hoped that the Cayuse Warrior, along with the Embraer Super Tucano light attack aircraft can fill the gap left by Afghanistan’s ageing Soviet-era aircraft, however the new aircraft thus far have been in small numbers and with mixed results. With the Cayuse Warrior, one pilot complained that when fully loaded it had a maximum altitude of only 8,000 ft., making it incapable of crossing many of the mountain ranges in Afghanistan. It is unarmored and there have been reports of mechanical unreliability, the .50 machine guns repeatedly jamming in action, and the lack of gunsights requiring the weapons to be aimed by tracers.
May 30/17: MD Helicopters has received a $76.7 million contract for logistical and contractor support for MD 530F Cayuse Warrior helicopters operated by the Afghan Air Force. US Army Fiscal 2017 funds of $37.6 million have been allocated to the program, with work to be carried out in Mesa, Ariz., and Afghanistan. The program is expected to be finished by May 31, 2018. 27 Cayuse Warriors were delivered to Kabul last year to assist in a variety of missions including escorts, over-watch, and close air support.
August 29/16: The Afghan Air Force has received its final batch of four MD-530 Cayuse Warrior helicopters. Unlike the previous delivery of five, the latest units are equipped with rocket and .50 caliber firing capabilities. This brings to 27 the number of Cayuse warriors now operated by the AAF, who often engage in providing aerial escort to convoys, providing over-watch to ANDSF operations and responding to “troops in contact” situations.
January 14/16: MD Helicopters are to manufacture and deliver twelve more MD 530F Cayuse Warrior Scout Attack helicopters to the Afghan Air Force. The addition will add to the twelve already in use by the air force. The previous 2015 order saw the aircraft delivered and operational within nine months, and have already seen successful operational duty. Five training variants are also in use and have been upgraded to the Cayuse configuration. The order adds to the gradual increase in participation by the Afghan Armed Forces in running and conducting their own security operations under the eye of the US.
September 28/15: Afghan pilots flying the country’s recently-operational MD-530 helicopters have expressed criticism of the Cayuse Warrior aircraft, citing a lack of range and jamming of the twin .50 cal machine guns installed through a contract last October. The mountains bordering the helicopters’ Kabul operating base are posing a challenge for the small helicopters, with the thin air reducing lift, limiting effective range and placing Taliban operating areas out of reach.
August 13/15: Afghanistan’s armed MD-530 helicopters have been used in combat for the first time, reports indicated on Wednesday. The Afghan Security Forces announced in July that the helicopters would be equipped with rocket pods to complement .50 cal machine guns. MD Helicopters was awarded a contract in March 2011 for the first six helicopters, with an additional order for a further twelve announced in September 2014.
Oct 8/14: Investigation. The Associated Press reports that the US Dept. of Justice Department is looking into allegations that a former Army Colonel gave MD Helicopters inside information to help them win key foreign contracts that restored their offerings to the global military market. Meanwhile, the contracts remain valid.
“(Retired Col. Bert) Vergez provided [main MD investor Lynn] Tilton with details about upcoming contracts to give her company an advantage over the competition, according to internal company documents obtained by the AP and interviews with people knowledgeable of the investigation but not authorized to discuss the matter…. [his] hiring by Tilton so quickly after hanging up his uniform may have violated rules requiring that federal officials wait a year or more before receiving compensation from a company they dealt with while working for the government…. Vergez, who is no longer employed by MD Helicopters or Patriarch Partners, did not return emails and telephone calls seeking comment.”
Former MD Helicopters employees Philip Marsteller and Robert Swisher have also filed a civil suit against Vergez, Tilton and MD Helicopters / Patriarch Partners under the Federal False Claims Act, a whistleblowing law whose “qui tam” provisions would allow them to receive 10-30% of any judgement rendered. Their claim says that they warned the company that the hiring would be illegal, and notes their concern over the “level of Col. Vergez’ subservience to Tilton and his continuing involvement in MD’s Army contracts.” Sources: US Dept. of Justice, “The False Claims Act: A Primer” [PDF] | AP Big Story, “Company wins new contracts despite federal probe”.
Oct 1/14: Arm 17. MD Helicopters, Inc. in Mesa, AZ receives a maximum $44.2 million firm-fixed-price, unfinalized contract for the Afghan Air Force, to arm 17 of their MD-530F helicopters. The fleet order for enough MD-530Fs is already in place (q.v. Sept 26/14), and they’ve already created that modification: the MD-530G. $21.7 million is committed immediately.
The MD-530G is the right kind of helicopter to make a difference on Afghanistan’s battlefield, in an environment where the Afghan military is doing most of the fighting. Can they keep the helicopters running and supplied with working weapons, pilot them effectively, and hold enough ground to let the MD-530Gs work? Time will tell.
Work will be performed in Mesa, AZ with an estimated completion date of Sept 29/15. One bid was solicited with 1 received by US Army Contracting Command at Redstone Arsenal, AL (W58RGZ-14-C-0081). See also AIN, “MD Helicopters To Supply ‘Cayuse Warrior’ for Afghan Force”.
Sept 26/14: MD Helicopters, Inc. in Mesa, AZ receives a $35.7 million firm-fixed-price contract modification, exercising an option for 12 more Afghan MD-530F primary trainer helicopters, bringing announced orders to 18. Meanwhile, MD Helicopters has been finalizing its MD-530G armed scout model/ conversion. All funds are committed immediately.
Work will be performed in Mesa, AZ, with an estimated completion date of Sept 29/15. US Army Contracting Command in Redstone Arsenal, AL is the contracting agency. The contract was announced on this date, but awarded Sept 19/14 (W58RGZ-11-C-0070, PO 0019).
May 8/12: Sub-contractors. For each new Afghan MD-530F, Cobham Aerospace Communications will supply 4 of its N301A audio controllers; Cobham Antenna Systems will provide VHF communications, VOR/LOC/GS V-Dipole, DME, and Navigation Splitter Antennas; and Cobham Commercial Systems will supply an Artex C406-2HM emergency locator transmitter. Cobham plc [PDF] | Arabian Aerospace.
Feb 21/12: A US Army article discusses the training process and personnel involved in the MD-530F effort.
Sept 13/11: MD Helicopters, Inc. presents the first 3 Afghan MD-530Fs to the U.S. Army, as part of the Rotary Wing Primary Training Aircraft-Afghanistan Program.
Sept 7/11: MD Helicopters, Inc. in Mesa, AZ receives a $14.2 million firm-fixed-price contract modification to provide logistics support and flight training devices for the Afghan Air Force’s MD 530Fs. Work will be performed in Shindand, Afghanistan, with an estimated completion date of March 31/16. One bid was solicited for this, with one bid received by U.S. Army Contracting Command in Redstone Arsenal, AL (W58RGZ-11-C-0070).
March 14/11: MD Helicopters, Inc. in Mesa, AZ wins an initial $19.9 million firm-fixed-price contract for 6 new primary training helicopters, 2 corresponding flight training devices, and critical spare parts for the Afghan Air Force.
That initial order could reach as many as 54 helicopters over the life of the 4 year contract, giving it an implicit value of up to $180 million. Work will be performed in Mesa, AZ with an estimated completion date of March 31/16. The U.S. Army Contracting Command at Redstone Arsenal, AL solicited 9 bids, with 4 bids received (W58RGZ-11-C-0070).
First 6 helicopters and infrastructure
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