According to Aaron Mehta of Defense News, Lockheed Martin has already generated a customer for the gunship version of Sikorsky’s highly-successful UH-60 Black Hawk. Known officially as the “Battlehawk”, it can either be offered as a kit for installation on current Black Hawks, or as a pre-existing modification to UH-60M and S-70i helicopters coming fresh off Sikorsky’s production line. The deal was inked at the Farnborough International Airshow for 24 units, with an unnamed buyer.
Interestingly enough, the UH-60 gunship concept can be traced to one of the most high-speed military aviation units in history – the US Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, also known as the Night Stalkers. Developed in 1989, completely in-house, by CWO Cliff “Elvis” Wolcott, who was tragically killed years later during Operation Gothic Serpent (Black Hawk Down incident) in Mogadishu, Somalia, the MH-60L Direct Action Penetrator (DAP) would become the 160th’s heavy gunship helo, supplementing the MH-6 Little Birds the regiment also used, which were able to carry miniguns and rocket pods. Wolcott, a former Cobra attack helo pilot, through the regiment’s Systems Integration and Management Office, was able to develop the DAP in 1989 by utilizing wing stubs to field rockets, machine guns and cannons, and later on, even air-to-ground missiles. The 160th now possesses at least two MH-60L DAP capable platoons within two of its Black Hawk companies.
Sikorksy, now owned by Lockheed Martin after being spun off by United Technologies just last year, has in the past offered dedicated gunship versions of the Black Hawk but with no success. Colombia elected to have a select number of their UH-60s modified instead by Elbit, an Israeli defense contractor, to be able to fly COIN (COunter INsurgency) operations by fielding forward-facing machine guns and light rockets on wing stubs. Elbit also added a Forward-Looking Infrared (FLIR) system and upgraded the UH-60’s electronics, finally labeled the finished product as the AH-60L “Arpia” (Spanish for “Harpy”). Sikorsky later offered the AH-60L, now dubbed “Battlehawk”, to Australia buy was unsuccessful. However, interest was generated in the United Arab Emirates, and in 2011, the UAE ordered a number of Battlehawk kits for their UH-60Ms.
For a country with a small defense budget (in comparison to larger countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, etc.), the Battlehawk makes a lot of sense in that it can be bought either in kit form, or be built onto current orders of Black Hawks on the production line, adding a light air support capability without having to spend millions more on buying a dedicated helo gunship, millions on pilot and crew training for that new gunship, and even more on developing infrastructure and support setups for the new helo. Instead, pilots and crew who are already familiar with the Black Hawk can make the jump over fairly quickly after going through a familiarization program with a tolerable learning curve. Spares and parts would not be an issue either. For countries like the UAE, however, the Battlehawk would simply be used to bolster its preexisting helo gunship fleet for close air support missions. A fast conversion can remove the offensive systems from the Battlehawk, turning it back into a utility Black Hawk which in turn can also be used for a variety of missions.
You can watch the MH-60L DAP in action in this video:
Note that the video’s title is erroneous – you can see the DAP firing rockets at the very beginning of the video, and its chain guns throughout the rest of it.
At the moment, Battlehawk kits exist in three tiers:
- Level One: The least-expensive version, featuring full cabin capacity and troop load, forward-facing machine guns or rocket pods on wing stubs, and an electro-optical surveillance turret underneath the nose of the aircraft.
- Level Two: The ability to field guided weaponry, including anti-armor missiles such as the BGM-71 Tube-launched, Optically tracked, Wire-guided (TOW) missile, the Spike, and the AGM-114 Hellfire, as well as future laser-guided rockets. Using larger wing stubs, the Level Two kit would use the inner pylon on both sides for a large-caliber machine gun, and rocket launchers or missiles on the outboard pylons. Improved targeting and all-weather surveillance systems are also included. Troop load capacity stays at 11 full-equipped soldiers, but can be reduced based on the weapons payload.
- Level Three: All of the Level Two kit’s features, and an underslung 180-degree gun turret. Forward cabin space, and thus troop load, is severely reduced.