NAVAL AIR STATION PATUXENT RIVER, Md.–Nearing the end of production for the most-advanced H-1 utility and attack helicopters, the U.S. Marine Corps is planning for how it will efficiently maintain and effectively upgrade the aircraft for the next 30 years of service.

Now the service is focused on improving readiness of the fielded fleet while speeding new capabilities to as many aircraft as possible in a timely manner, all in preparation for flying them until the 2040s, according to Marine Col. David Walsh, the service’s H-1 program manager.

Bell UH-1Y Huey. Photo: Bell
Bell UH-1Y Huey. Photo: Bell

“It’s about getting the aircraft that is already bought and fielded up and flying,” Walsh told a meeting hosted by the National Defense Industrial Association at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md. “Speed to the fleet, getting capabilities out there more quickly — that’s a focus for us so we can maintain our combat relevance, keep up with our adversaries, leverage [foreign military sales] opportunities to keep our industrial base healthy and maintain our strategic advantage beyond H-1.”

A laundry list of upgrades to both aircraft includes everything from increased speed and range, anti-missile countermeasures and technologies to help pilots see in degraded visual environments (DVE). Some have started to field while others like DVE systems, are not scheduled to enter the fleet until fiscal year 2024.

The service wants to extend the payload capacity and range of both aircraft by beefing up the floor structure and external store mounts on the UH-1Y so it can carry more fuel and weapons.

“This is any aircraft you field, the fleet is always going to want more — more weapons, more fuel, more range,” Walsh said.

Survivability enhancements include integration of the AN/AAQ-45 Distributed Aperture Infrared Countermeasures (DAIRCM) system under an urgent needs statement. DAIRCM is a suite of interconnected sensors and countermeasures that detects, identifies and tracks incoming guided missile threats, then jams or destroys them before they impact the aircraft.

In fiscal year 2019, the Joint Air-to-Ground Missile (JAGM) should finalize operational test and be integrated onto the aircraft. The Marine Corps is also interested in the AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missile and improved laser-guided rockets, Walsh said.

Other planned upgrades include systems to keep aircrews safe and comfortable inside the aircraft and virtual training systems that can keep pilots proficient without wearing down the helicopters. Live virtual training systems will be deployed to both Hawaii and Okinawa, Japan, he said.

“Anytime we can train without burning gas and putting time on the airframes is good,” he said. “We’re always looking to field those systems out there, reaching out to the fleet.”

As the Marine Corps continues with the upgrade plans, the trick is to field a particular system to as much of the fleet as possible, instead of 50 or 100 aircraft. That helps avoid a “piecemeal” fleet that has a dozen or more configurations, Walsh said.

“That makes it harder to maintain,” he said. “It impacts our readiness. It forces the fleet to do gymnastics when you want to field the most capable aircraft” for a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU).

The Marine Corps plans to buy a total 349 H-1s with production scheduled to last through 2022 and will fly both aircraft at least for another 30 years when an attack/utility variant of Future Vertical Lift comes online, Walsh said.

Of a 160-aircraft program of record, the Marine Corps has fielded 158 UH-1Ys and should finish out the program this year, Walsh said. About half of the 189 Z-model Cobras the Marine Corps planned to buy have been delivered. So far, Bell has delivered all of the advanced Hueys and 96 Vipers, Walsh said. Pakistan has ordered another 12 AH-1Zs, of which 10 have been delivered. Bell, a division of Textron [TXT], is the prime contractor for the H-1 helicopters.

The H-1 upgrade program began as a series of engineering change proposals — installation of new rotors, digital glass cockpit and other capability improvements — but became a program of record for buying and fielding new-build aircraft. The hodgepodge acquisition approach resulted in “lower than expected reliability,” Walsh said.

To relieve those issues and improve aircraft available, the service is focused on making maintenance easier with new digital manuals and training while ensuring spare parts are on hand when and where needed, Walsh said.