‘Loach’ Scout & SOF: Bringing back the Light Observation Helicopter and introducing a ‘Little Bird’ for Special Forces

See Part One: Chops for AOPS – Providing the Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS) with an ‘organic air capability’

Note: Originally published on CASR, it is re-upped here as the companion to the Bell 429 Light Maritime Helicopter article.

Canada’s 1992 military order of the Bell 412CF, known to the Canadian Forces as the CH-146 Griffon, was fraught with controversy. [1] The CH-146 was intended to replace four different helicopter types in four distinct roles: the Bell CH-136 Kiowa Light Observation Helicopters, Bell CH-118 Iroquois Base Flight Rescue aircraft, and Bell CH-135 Twin Huey Utility Tactical Transport Helicopters, as well as Boeing CH-147C Chinook heavy-lift transport helicopters.

There were obvious problems with the Griffon trying to fulfill the heavy-lift transport role. In reality, that role was left unfulfilled by the Canadian Forces for almost two decades until new CH-147F Chinooks were bought (even then, six used CH-147D Chinooks, had to be begged first from the US Army). [2] Another role that challenged the Griffon was light observation.

To a degree, technology came to the aid of Griffons in the observation role. [3] But the word ‘light’ just can’t be applied to the CH-146 – at 5.4 tonnes, the Griffon weighs more than twice that of the 2.5-t Kiowa the CH-146 was meant to replace. [4] Nor does the ‘Bigger is Better’ maxim readily apply to the observation role where the better part of the mission is discretion.

Fishing for Loach: The argument for a new Canadian Army Light Observation Helicopter

There’s a ready argument for new light helicopters to properly fill the observation role for the Canadian Army. Some original CH-136 Kiowa roles could be carried out by Tactical UAVs but there are still advantages to having manned observation aircraft over the battlefield. The most trusted sensor remains the ‘Mark 1 Eyeball’ and crews can respond immediately. As an ‘Armed Scout’, an observation helicopter places its manned weapons immediately on-scene.

The counter-argument is that the Canadian Armed Forces have those assets now in the form of the CH-146 INGRESS (Inter-operable Griffon Reconnaissance Escort Surveillance System). Formidable as the CH-146 INGRESS sensor and armaments package are, they are tied to the overly large and relatively noisy Griffon airframe. There is a certain value in a light helicopter that is smaller, quieter, and faster than a CH-146 Griffon – not least of which is survivability.

The best available helicopter type to fill the CF’s revived Light Observation role was identified in Part One: Chops for AOPS which advocated the provision of an ‘organic air capability’ for AOPS, the Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships being built for the Royal Canadian Navy. In that proposal, the same light helicopter type bought for use by the Canadian Coast Guard would be used by AOPS.

A Made in Montréal Solution – Bell Helicopter Textron Canada Model 429 GlobalRanger

Using the ‘All of Government’ procurement approach advocated by CASR, the ideal Light Observation helicopter candidate would be the assembled-in-Canada Bell Model 429. Since the B429 has been bought for the CCG and would equally suit military applications, there are economies of scale to be had here if the Government of Canada managed the contracts well.

So, how does the Bell Model 429 fit the Light Observation Helicopter bill? A B429 is smaller, faster, quieter, and slightly longer-ranged than the in-service Griffon. At 3.1 tonnes, the Bell 429 can also carry a very useful load – including a stretcher case should the need arise. [5] Light Observation Helicopters require sensors and weaponry but Bell has already integrated these onto their smaller Model 407. Combining this package with the B429’s speed and range advantage would create a considerable tactical edge. The added performance also makes the Bell 429 a better match as an armed escort for the RCAF’s new CH-147F than the old Griffon.

As with the Bell 429 for shipboard use, a B429 LOH would have differences from its CCG kin. Changes would include an ASE fit [6] and avionics compatibility with military requirements. The electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) turret allows effective operation in poor light conditions and can provide targetting information for weapons. Unlike the CCG’s B429 or the proposed AOPS aircraft, Tactical Helicopter Squadron B429s would not need to have a weather radar.

There’s another specialist role where a light helicopter such as the Bell 429 might see gainful employment in RCAF service, that is in support of Special Operations Forces (SOF). US SOF use very light Boeing MH-6/AH-6 ‘Little Birds’ in support of their missions. CANSOFCOM relies upon the much larger CH-146 Griffons of 427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron – the RCAF’s sole dedicated SOF support unit. Soon, CANSOFCOM will have access to even larger CH-147F Chinooks but Canada’s only ‘Little Bird’ equivalents were those Bell CH-136 Kiowa Light Observation Helicopters replaced by Griffons and then sold off back in 1992.[7]

“To arms! ye soldiers…” The armaments options for a Bell 429 Scout or SOF Helicopter

Armament choices would be extensive. Light Observation Helicopters frequently carry fixed weapons on short pylons. Rocket pods, missiles (anti-tank and anti-air ), machine guns, and cannons up to 30mm are common. This mix allows LOH to deal with most anticipated threats.

As an escort for larger transport helicopters, a door machine gun would be invaluable. This door gun allows the escort to maintain fire on threats to the transports from a broad range of angles. Door guns currently in service with the Canadian Armed Forces include the pintle-mounted 7.62 mm C6 GPMG, multi-barrelled DMG134S MiniGuns in the same calibre, and larger-calibre 12.7 mm GAU-21 (aka FN M3M) machine guns. Precision-guided rockets – such as the CRV7-PG version of the in-service Bristol Aerospace CRV7 – would allow escorts to engage threats on the ground from safer standoff ranges.


Original Image from CASR. Used with the kind permission of the creator, Stephen Priestley. Bell 429 shown with IR exhaust suppressors, EO/IR turret and side-mounted CRV-7PG rocket pods.

Light helicopters for SOF come in two varieties. The first is the unarmed transport helicopter. These aircraft lift small teams of SOF operators into the battlespace. The second variant of light helicopter is the fire-support gunship. The weapons carried by gunship helicopters are usually the only heavy fire support that a deployed SOF team can rely on. SOF gunships are often so heavily armed that, to maximize firepower, they surrender their transport capability.

So, what would be gained by having these proposed Scout and SOF variants in service with the Canadian Armed Forces? In short, increased CAF capabilities (which, incidentally, also free up more RCAF CH-146 Griffons for the rotary-wing search-and-rescue role), expanding the number of roles performed by a Canadian-manufactured airframe (boosting exports), and employing Canadians to build the helicopters, [8] without breaking the bank in the process.

Bell Model 429 GlobalRanger – Helicopter Type Comparison Table

[1] CH-146 Griffons were the outcome of the CF Utility Tactical Transport Helicopter Project.[2] The CH-147C fleet served from 1974 to 1992. New CH-147Fs were bought in 2006 but their ‘Full Operational Capability’ isn’t expected until 2017. CH-147Ds were operational in Feb 2009.[3] INGRESS introduced the L-3 Wescam MX-15 True HD electro-optical / infrared turret to the CH-146 Griffon fleet (along with armaments options) but only 19 EO/IR were purchased.[4] The weights listed for the CH-136 Kiowas and CH-146 Griffons are for maximum take-off.[5] Bell originally designed the Model 429 with use by Emergency Medical Services in mind.[6] Aircraft Survivability Equipment include electronic countermeasures, add-on armour, etc.[7] Prior to being retired, the CH-136 Kiowa fleet was initially passed on to the Air Reserves.[8] Update: 28 April 2015 – If recommendations for securing Canadian manufacturing jobs needed added urgency, Bell Helicopters just announced 300 layoffs at its Miral, PQ facility.

Aircraft Bell Model 429 CH-146 Griffon CH-147 Chinook
Length 12.70 metres 17.10 metres 30.10 metres
Rotor Diameter 10.97 metres 14.00 metres 18.30 metres
Height 4.04 metres 4.60 metres 5.70 metres
Maximum Speed 155 kt/287 km/h 130 kt/240 km/h 170 kt/315 km/h
Cruising Speed 150 kt/277 km/h 118 kt/218 km/h 130 kt/240 km/h
Range 390 nm 354 nm 400 nm
Service Ceiling 20,000 ft/6096m 20,000 ft/6096m 18,500 ft/5638m
Empty Weight 1,925 kg 3,079 kg 10,185 kg
Max Takeoff Wt 3,175 kg 5,397 kg 22,680 kg
Useful Load 1,250 kg 2,318 kg 12,495 kg

15 year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces. I now write to let the thoughts in my head get out where I can see 'em. :)

Posted in Canadian American Strategic Review, Canadian Army, Canadian Forces, Canadian Industry, CASR, RCAF
One comment on “‘Loach’ Scout & SOF: Bringing back the Light Observation Helicopter and introducing a ‘Little Bird’ for Special Forces
  1. […] See Part Two: ‘Loach’ Scout & SOF – Bringing back the CAF’s Light Observatio… […]


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Canadian ~ American Strategic Review

CASR has announced that it will cease operations on 31/December/2016.

I have grateful to have been given the opportunity to write for them, and to repost my material on Defence Muse.

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