Special Operations Command under pressure as army continues MH-47 upgrade plans

Recent Boeing MH-47E Chinook losses in Afghanistan and the Philippines are putting a strain on the US Special Operations Command's (SOCOM) small and increasingly overstretched transport fleet. This is prompting the army to look at acquiring additional helicopters, while, at the same time, pushing ahead with the upgrade of existing machines to MH-47Gs.

Intense fighting in the Shahi Khot valley in eastern Afghanistan on 3 March claimed the lives of seven US servicemen and the loss of an MH-47 helicopter after being hit by ground fire. A second Chinook on another troop insertion mission earlier that day, as part of Operation Anaconda, was damaged by a rocket propelled grenade, killing one. This follows an MH-47 accident in the Philippines that killed 10 servicemen.

The US Department of Defense has dispatched additional army Boeing AH-64 Apaches and US Marine Corps Bell AH-1W Cobra attack helicopters and Sikorsky CH-53E heavylift machines to the conflict. The Chinook, however, is being heavily used, as it is better suited to operating at the 10,000ft- plus (3,000m) altitude of the mountain battlefield.

During earlier operations in Afghanistan at least three other MH-47s are thought to have been badly damaged. This is straining the MH-47 fleet. "We're stretched thin, but we're doing what has been asked of us," says SOCOM.

Boeing built 26 MH-47Es, one of which was lost several years ago in a training mission. There are also 11 MH-47Ds, but they are less capable, lacking the E's integrated avionics, extended range fuel-tanks and Raytheon APG-174 terrain following/avoidance radar. Availability will be reduced further as machines are upgraded to MH-47G standard at the rate of six a year starting in 2003/4.

Definition of the new MH-47G cockpit is not complete, and Boeing does not yet have a contract - but SOCOM hopes to receive the first upgraded helicopter next year. It will be rebuilt from a damaged MH-47E now at Boeing. The army at the same time is looking at ordering additional new machines. "That's something that's down the road, but likely because of what has happened," says SOCOM.

Source: Flight International