Amid Uncertainty, U.S. Air Force Orders Additional MH-139 Grey Wolf Helicopters

A MH-139A Grey Wolf sits at Duke Field, Florida after landing from a test flight on Feb. 22, 2024. The Grey Wolf provides the ability to cruise 50% faster and farther than the UH-1N Huey helicopters, while also having a 30% larger cabin and capability to lift 5,000 pounds more. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Breanna Christopher Volkmar)

A total of 26 MH-139 helicopters are now on order, although it’s not known if the service will complete the 74-helicopter fleet or stop at 36 helicopters as mentioned in the FY25 budget documents.

The U.S. Air Force has awarded Boeing a $178M contract to produce seven new MH-139A aircraft and provide sustainment and training support, bringing the total number of aircraft under contract to 26. The award comes few months after the first flight of the first production aircraft and shortly after the first deliveries to operational units.

“Building the Grey Wolf fleet and paving the way towards full rate production is a critical step in supporting the Air Force’s modernization priorities,” said Azeem Khan, MH-139 program director. “Delivering on these commitments and getting more capability into the hands of our customers is important to their mission protecting vital national assets.”

U.S. Air Force Orders Additional MH-139 Grey Wolf Helicopters
The MH-139A Grey Wolf undergoes extensive training and preparation at Duke Field, Florida on February 21, 2024. This aircraft will make its active-duty debut to Malmstrom AFB on March 5, 2024. (U.S. Air Force Photo by 2nd Lt. Haylee Francks).

So far, the Air Force took delivery of six helicopters as part of the research, development, test & evaluation (RDT&E) phase. The first Low-Rate Initial Production MH-139, currently undergoing flight testing, is expected to be delivered by this summer.

However, there is still a degree of uncertainty regarding the final size of the MH-139 fleet. In fact, the original requirement was for up to 84 helicopters, a number that was first reduced to 80 and later 74, until the new Fiscal Year 2025 budget documents showed that the total fleet was reduced even more to just 36 MH-139s.

The Air Force plans to replace the ageing fleet of 63 UH-1N Huey helicopters with the Grey Wolf. The helicopters’ main role is the protection of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) facilities and, in fact, Air Force Global Strike Command is the lead command and operational capability requirements sponsor for the MH-139.

The helicopter is also supposed, as secondary roles, to provide vertical airlift and support to four Air Force Major Commands and other operating agencies including AFGSC, Air Education and Training Command, Air Force Materiel Command, Air Force Reserve Command, and the Air Force District of Washington (AFDW), as well as civilian search and rescue. According to Air Force acquisition chief Andrew Hunter, the MH-139s being cut are largely the ones assigned to these secondary roles.

“It’s just about the overall budget of the Air Force and what we’re able to afford and what we’re not able to afford,” said Hunter following a congressional hearing in March. “What we are doing is fielding MH-139 to all of the nuclear forces, so Global Strike Command. We’re completely fielding the systems needed for those forces. We had anticipated also fielding to replace aircraft in other locations not associated with Global Strike, and those we will not be able to replace.”

The MH-139 Grey Wolf

The MH-139A Grey Wolf is a multi-mission helicopter based on Leonardo’s proven AW139 helicopter, designed to protect intercontinental ballistic missiles and transport U.S. government officials and security forces. The MH-139A team consists of Boeing, as the prime contractor, and Leonardo as an original equipment manufacturer. Leonardo produces the helicopter at its plant in northeast Philadelphia, while Boeing is responsible for military equipment procurement and installation and post-delivery support of the aircraft.

Boeing and Leonardo say that the MH-139A’s enhanced capabilities allow it to accomplish missions more quickly, quietly and efficiently, with a 50 percent increase in speed and range, a 30% larger cabin and an increase of 5,000 pounds max gross weight. The Air Force said previously that the performance of the aircraft shows great potential for improving on the myriad of missions that have been covered by the venerable Huey.

The Boeing-Leonardo Team was awarded the initial $2.4 billion contract in September 2018 for 84 helicopters, training systems and associated support equipment. In August of 2022, the U.S. Air Force accepted the first four helicopters, with the deliveries of the six RDT&E MH-139s completed in 2023.

U.S. Air Force Orders Additional MH-139 Grey Wolf Helicopters
An MH-139A Grey Wolf drops down into a soft dirt field April 5, 2024 at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. (U.S. Air Force photo by Samuel King Jr.)

Following the delivery of the first four helicopters, the MH-139 finally entered developmental testing, after experiencing unexpected delays because of the integration of defensive systems, an airspeed sensor and the FAA certification. While the commercial AW-139 is already certified by the FAA, the MH-139 conversion needed FAA-approved Supplemental Type Certifications (STCs) for military-specific equipment.

The Air Force reached the Milestone C decision for the MH-139 Grey Wolf helicopter in early 2023, awarding Boeing a $285 million contract to begin the Low-Rate Initial Production of 13 helicopters, together with sustainment and support services. The first helicopter is already being flight tested, while others are in various stages of the assembly process.

The MH-139A, after being temporally based at Duke Field, Florida, where Detachment 7 has been established to support testing and evaluation, are now being delivered to operational units. The first location to receive the new helicopter was Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana, where the first MH-139 was welcomed during a ceremony on March 9, 2024.

Less than a month later, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, also received its first MH-139. The helicopter is assigned to the 908th Airlift Wing, which was divested from the tactical airlift mission in 2022 in order to become the U.S. Air Force’s formal training unit for Grey Wolf aircrew.

The most recent troubles of the MH-139 program

According to Air & Space Forces Magazine, the Air Force notified the Congress of a “critical” Nunn-McCurdy breach on the MH-139 Grey Wolf program. Any cost or schedule overrun over 15& is considered “significant,” while a breach of 30& is considered “critical.”

It appears the breach was caused by the FY25 budget which cut the fleet from 80 to 42 MH-139s (6 RDT&E + 36 production), which caused the price per helicopter to rise significantly, while overall procurement costs dropped $1.1 billion.

The latest report of the Director, Operational Testing & Evaluation was also not very kind toward the MH-139. The 2023 annual report states, in fact, that the program still faces several risks to maintaining planned schedule and meeting operational effectiveness, suitability and survivability requirements.

Among the concerns regarding the effectiveness are some deficiencies being solved, such as the cabin layout and communications. Another concern being investigated is the engine ingestion of dust and debris during austere landing in snow and on unimproved terrain. Analysis of test data is currently ongoing to further improve the design.

U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Howard Kreamer, United States Strategic Command senior enlisted leader, takes off in a UH-1N Huey helicopter, near Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., April 3, 2024. Kreamer assumed his current position as the command senior enlisted leader in October of 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Breanna Christopher Volkmar)
About Stefano D'Urso
Stefano D'Urso is a freelance journalist and contributor to TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. A graduate in Industral Engineering he's also studying to achieve a Master Degree in Aerospace Engineering. Electronic Warfare, Loitering Munitions and OSINT techniques applied to the world of military operations and current conflicts are among his areas of expertise.