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‘Poisonous Pair’

The AH1Z and UH1Y combine on the Pacific Coast with HMLA-169.

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As the AH-1Z Viper replaces the proven but dated AH-1W Super Cobra and the new UH-1Y Venom is in full production to replace the USMC’s fleet of aging 1970’s era UH-1N Iroquois, HMLA-169 will soon become the USMC’s first Pacific full-squadron deployment to operate both new types. 

As the Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) drawdown continues to progress, Marine Light Attack Helicopter squadron HMLA-169 will deploy to Okinawa, Japan – probably during the summer of 2015 - and be the first frontline squadron equipped entirely with the combination of AH-1Z (Zulu) and UH-1Y (Yankee) to deploy back into the Pacific region. The length of deployment is likely to be six or seven months, a fairly standard period for USMC squadron overseas deployments.

The outgoing twin-engine Bell AH-1W Super Cobra is a well-proven evolution of the original single engine Bell AH-1 Cobra, itself developed from - and retaining much parts commonality with - the original UH-1 Iroquois. The AH-1Z, however, represents a major step up from the AH-1W (Whiskey) and is a more revolutionary than evolutionary change, although repeating the past in the way it shares a very high commonality with the equally massively upgraded UH-1Y. Advances boasted by the Zulu include an aerodynamically improved fuselage and an avionics/electronics package that is vastly more capable. A six-display glass cockpit is standard and the automatic flight control system (AFCS) integrates with the imbedded GPS/INS to decrease pilot workload. The Thales supplied ‘Optimized Top Owl’ helmet system comes complete with a day/night HUD that overlays weapons and navigation information, while the Lockheed Martin AAQ-30 Target Sight System (TSS) incorporates a FLIR, digital color TV camera and a laser designator. A new bearingless, rigid four-bladed composite rotor is shared with the Yankee variant and offers substantial gains in maneuverability, handling and cruise speed. It also boasts better battle-damage tolerance – tolerating hits from up to 23mm rounds, while comprising 75% fewer parts than conventional articulated rotors. The move from T700-401 GE engines to the T700-401Cs provides a boost in power from 1680 to 1830shp for each engine. Typical cruise speed in combat configuration is 135-140kts, with a maximum dash speed in the vicinity of 180kts. 

Similarly, the Yankee boasts dramatic improvements over its UH-1N predecessor. The UH-1Y variant’s most noticeable upgrade over previous models is the same four-blade, all-composite rotor system as the Zulu. A 21-inch (530 mm) insert just forward of the main door has been installed for more capacity and it shares the upgraded engines, transmission and digital cockpit of the AH-1Z. Compared to the UH-1N, the Yankee boasts almost 125% increased payload, almost 50% greater range, reduced vibration and higher cruise speed.

HMLA169 – with the very appropriate squadron nickname of ‘Vipers’ - returned from OEF duty in Afghanistan in May 2013, where they had been deployed with a complement of AH-1Ws (Whiskeys) and UH-1Ys. The transition to Zulus had already commenced with some squadron personnel remaining in the US during the OEF deployment and after HMLA-169’s return from Afghanistan the first contingent of squadron pilots went to HMLAT-303 (training) squadron for Zulu conversion, while a few Whiskeys were retained for pilot currency purposes. According to HMLA-169 commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel James M. Isaacs, it took around two and a half months to completely eliminate Whiskeys and be able to totally focus on the new Zulu. As the standard posting for operational commanders is eighteen months, LtCol Isaacs will not be commanding the squadron when it deploys to the Pacific, but it is difficult to imagine a more ideal commander for the transition to the Viper & Venom combination as he served at Headquarters Marine Corps, Department of Aviation, not only as the Attack/Utility Helicopter Plans Officer, but more relevantly as the H-1 Transition Task Force Lead, before being promoted to his current rank In July of 2011. During his career he has amassed over 3,500 flight hours in naval aircraft and his many postings include stints as squadron UH-1N weapons and tactics instructor; UH-1N Division instructor; UH-1N subject matter expert for Defensive Air Combat Maneuvering, Training Management, and Rapid Response Planning at MAWTS-1, then completing his MAWTS-1 tour as UH-1N Division head.

When questioned why the Whiskeys were removed from the Squadron inventory before the full complement of Zulus had arrived, LtCol Isaacs explained that the downside of retaining the disparate types outweighed the small advantage of maintaining a greater number of aircraft on strength. The commonality between the Zulu and the Yankee is an impressive almost 85%, despite their very different appearance and capability, so retaining the older Whiskeys with their much lower level of commonality would involve a much greater demand on squadron resources, particularly in the maintenance department. This is because although the weapons and weapon systems, sensors and fuselages are different on the two new types, they share most major componentry, common subsystems and powertrains.

LtCol Isaacs described some of the advantages the new types offered, telling HeliOps Frontline, “Coming to grips with the Yankee-Zulu combination has led us to realize that the pairing actually changes the battlefield for us. Combat range, payload capability and lethality are all enhanced, whereas the Whiskey’s weapons and delivery systems required a much tighter, closer combat engagement range.” He elaborated, “With the legacy AH- type (Whiskey) the weapon range was limited by the sensor package. Even though you had an improved-range weapon – we’re talking about the Hellfire – the sensor couldn’t identify and designate at sufficiently long range to take advantage of the missile’s maximum effective range.” In contrast, without quantifying the classified details, he stated that the Zulu’s new sensor package was effective at distances significantly greater than the current type-available weapons’ maximum range. “What that means is we have a platform that has improved significantly and now the weapon-systems for both guided and unguided weapons have to catch up.”

LtCol Isaacs flew UH-1Ns during the 1990s and commented that the two types very seldom flew together back then, but explained how mission tactics had changed, “When we were in Iraq during OIF in 2003 we started to recognize, develop and transition into tactics with Whiskey and November (UH-1N) pairings that really benefit from the two aircrafts’ differing but complimentary strengths.” The off-axis guns and extra eyeballs provided by the UH-1 enhanced the combat effectiveness of a pair formation but the slow speed of the November could be a real drawback in paired operations. The improved speed of the Yankee provides an ability to continue to develop more effective forms and variations of those tactics and now we have two almost performance-matched helicopters that can work really well together or really well on their own. That’s the key to all this,” remarked LtCol Isaacs. “If you look at the range of mission-essential tasks that we support, OAS (offensive air support) is right up there in the forefront, including both deep air support and close air support. Because the Yankee doesn’t have quite the range of the Zulu, the deep air support mission – probably PGM heavy - is more likely to be a scenario run supported by a pure Zulu element, but the CAS mission is definitely ideally suited to a Zulu/Yankee combined element.”

When asked if he viewed the Zulu/Yankee combination as the best ‘bang for buck’ for a prospective purchaser, Isaacs agreed. “We’ve already developed the inter-operability principle and now we’re demonstrating that it works. From a commanding officer’s standpoint, I now also have significant flexibility with ‘managing my barn’, so to speak. If I’m phasing an aircraft or one’s out for maintenance, I now have the ability to interchange parts between both types if required, which provides great efficiency and flexibility and is something that wasn’t possible with the Whiskey/Yankee combination. I don’t believe there is any other combination that could work quite the same way.”

Going forward, LtCol Isaacs would like to see the development and integration of newer weapon systems that utilize new aircrafts’ sensor and combat capabilities to the full. New PGMs (precision guided missiles) are constantly under development and will be becoming available, offering major advances over the Zulu’s current fit out of AGM-114 Hellfire missiles – the first variant of which went into production over 30 years ago. Other desired improvements would be range enhancements that could come from either material or tactical/operational developments, marrying up the range capability to the rest of the USMC platforms in current use. The inclusion of full digital inter-operability with the rest of the fleet is also extremely high on the Marine Corps’ wish list; permitting full integration into the modern digital battlefield that will include aircraft types like JSF (joint strike fighter), V22 and CH53K, as well as the systems used by troops on the ground. LtCol Isaacs sees digital inter-operability capability as the most pressing enhancement that would enhance the Yankee/Zulu combination’s tactical effectiveness by the greatest amount. This is an area already receiving official attention and each year the Corps lists the top ten priorities for each of its platforms over the coming year, with Isaacs confirming that the electronics upgrades necessary for the desired digital integration will be very high on the list for Zulu and Yankee.

For many years the USMC has maintained a regular presence in the Pacific region and it is good to see them deploying with their latest helicopter types. While some industry and military observers may have questioned the selection of the Zulu over the AH-64D Apache as a replacement for the Whiskey, the nature of the USMC ‘s requirements for rapid and possibly frequent deployments – both on land and sea – makes the logistical advantages alone an almost unbeatable advantage when comparing any other aircraft type to the pairing of AH-1Z and UH-1Y. Obviously, however, only time will reveal whether their perceived attributes and capabilities on the battlefield will live up to the Marines’ high expectations but if the hoped-for enhancements do eventuate, it is difficult to envisage a more effective tactical combination of helicopter types.


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United States Marine Corps
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