Photo Info
The Grey Wolf is a multi-mission helicopter based on Leonardo’s AW139, designed to protect intercontinental ballistic missiles and transport U.S. government officials and security forces. USAF Photo

USAF wants to halve Grey Wolf order

By Mark Huber | March 15, 2024

Estimated reading time 4 minutes, 44 seconds.

The U.S. Air Force is hoping to slash the total number of production Boeing/Leonardo MH-139A Grey Wolf medium helicopters it has on order from 74 to 36, according to its $188.1 billion Fiscal Year (FY) 2025 budget request. The USAF originally planned to order 84 aircraft for $2.38 billion when the contract was first awarded in 2018. USAF officials cited budgetary pressures as the prime rationale for proposing the pared down order, which would now stretch low-rate production through FY 2029. However, lingering technical problems may also be in play.  

The missions originally envisioned for the militarized AW139 variant included replacing the service’s current fleet of Bell UH-1Ns that provide security at U.S. nuclear missile bases in Colorado, Nebraska, North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming, and lift for government VIP transport in the Washington, D.C. area and the Pacific. Other missions envisioned for the aircraft consisted of test range support at Eglin AFB, Florida; Air Force Reserve Command flight training at Maxwell AFB, Alabama; and medical evacuation and support at the USAF survival school at Fairchild AFB, Washington. Of those, only the nuclear security mission for the MH-139A appears certain at this time.

The USAF said the UH-1Ns needed to be replaced due to “capability gaps in the areas of speed, range, endurance, payload capacity, and aircraft self-protection.” 

Compared to the UH-1N, the MH-139A offers 50 percent improvements in speed and range, higher useful load, a 30 percent larger cabin that can hold nine equipped combat troops or 15 passengers, and a $1 billion operational cost saving over an anticipated 30-year life cycle.

The airframes are manufactured at Leonardo’s assembly plant in Philadelphia. Leonardo made $125 million in plant improvements in anticipation of the program. Militarized equipment, including cockpit and cabin armor, missile warning system and countermeasures, forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera, and externally-mounted M240 machineguns, are then added — some of it by Boeing’s nearby Ridley Park, Pennsylvania, facility. Boeing is the prime contractor on the program.

A duo of pre-production test aircraft was delivered to the USAF’s Duke Field at Eglin AFB in 2019. Four more test aircraft followed, beginning in 2022, and those were sent to the U.S. Air Force’s Life Cycle Management Center at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. The first production Grey Wolf was delivered to Malmstrom AFB, Montana, March 9.

The program has been subject to frequent delays, largely because of the USAF’s desire to obtain FAA supplemental type certification (STC) approvals for various systems on its variant of the aircraft, in order to gain expanded capabilities approvals and support military flight releases required for government-led development and flight testing. The number of required STCs ballooned over the course of development from five to nine.

While six of the nine STCs were approved by August 2023, program problems and risks remain, according to the U.S. Defense Department’s Director, Operational Test & Evaluation (OTE), as stated in that office’s January 2024 annual report. The OTE noted the need to conduct additional testing in areas including ballistic protection; low-laser; nuclear, biological, and chemical; electro-magnetic pulse; and limited infrared signature. It also reported ongoing problems related to cabin seating and layout, tie-down points, radio and internal communications, FOD ingestion, software compatibility, fuel cell integrity, and the gun ammunition feed system. OTE also expressed concern that air conditioning and another radio later added to the design could “increase aircraft weight and power requirements” and that could “stress powertrain components and increase maintenance requirements.”

Although the USAF is only asking for 36 MH-139As through FY 2029, it does note in the current budget request that it has funds available to procure up to 42, along with training devices and associated support equipment. However, Congress could always add to, or subtract from, that number.

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