Rotorcraft manufacturer Bell has begun a set of upgrades to US Marine Corps (USMC) H-1-series helicopters that will allow the adoption of new capabilities over the coming decades.

The Structural Improvement Electrical Power Upgrade (SIEPU) for Bell UH-1Y Venom utility and AH-1Z attack helicopters will increase each aircraft’s electrical power capacity to support the integration of additional cabin capabilities.

Bell on 28 March began rolling out the modifications, with the first USMC AH-1Z Viper arriving at the company’s H-1 assembly line in Amarillo, Texas under the SIEPU contract.

“SIEPU will be immediately beneficial for today’s operations, and also sets the H-1 up to quickly support future operational needs,” says Bell’s H-1 programme manager Mike Deslatte.

“Some that may not even be conceived of yet,” he adds.

AH-1Z 13th MEU VMM 362 conducts drone SHOOTEX c USMC

Source: US Marine Corps

Power upgrades to US Marine Corps UH-1Y and AH-1Z helicopters will give each type the ability to support new weapons systems and countermeasures, even those not yet invented

Among those improvements enabled by SIEPU will be the next generation of weapon systems, according to Bell, including kinetic long-range munitions and so-called air launched effects, such as air-launched small uncrewed air vehicles.

Bell also notes such capabilities will “greatly extend reach and range while simultaneously enhancing stand-off distance” of each aircraft.

That is particularly a concern for attack types like the AH-1Z, which must find ways to engage frontline targets while simultaneously evading precision air defence measures. Concerns over the vulnerability of attack helicopters led the US Army to cancel development of its next-generation Future Armed Reconnaissance Aircraft.

Bell UH-1Y

Source: US Marine Corps

The USMC operates 127 UH-1Ys and 176 AH-1Zs

Bell says the SIEPU programme will provide USMC rotorcraft with extra onboard power to support the development of new weapons and countermeasures needed to ensure survivability.

“We are confident that SIEPU will help the marine corps expand mission essential tasks with more mission flexibility,” says Danielle Markham, Bell’s SIEPU programme manager. “The important thing is to make sure the H-1 is in a position to take advantage of those opportunities as they become available.”

Although the USMC is perhaps best known for its Lockheed Martin F-35B short take-off and vertical landing fighters and Bell-Boeing MV-22 Osprey tiltrotors, the H-1 line still has a significant presence in the service’s aviation fleet.

The USMC operates 127 UH-1Ys and 176 AH-1Zs, according to Cirium data, with the Viper still representing the service’s primary attack helicopter, despite the type first entering production for the marine corps in 1962 as the AH-1 Cobra.

While the service concluded acquisition of new H-1 aircraft in 2022, Vipers and Venoms will continue to fly with the USMC at least through the 2040s, under the current Marine Corps Aviation Plan.

Bell has pivoted its focus to foreign military sales, securing orders from Bahrain, the Czech Republic, and most recently Nigeria in recent years.

That sale will extend the life of the Amarillo production line that assembles both AH-1Zs and UH-1Ys.

The two aircraft share 85% commonality, according to Bell.