Great Falls Tribune: New Grey Wolf attack helicopters to arrive at Malmstrom in next months

by David Murray

After roughly seven years of testing and delays it was announced Wednesday that Malmstrom Air Force Base will receive new MH-139 Grey Wolf helicopters to replace their aging fleet of Vietnam War era UH-1N Huey helicopters.

Malmstrom is set to receive seven Grey Wolf helicopters this year and additional aircraft will be delivered later. The first aircraft are scheduled be flown into Malmstrom in March.

According to Sen. Jon Tester’s office (D–Montana) the equipment upgrade is a testament to the U.S. Air Force’s commitment to maintaining Malmstrom as a critical component of the U.S. ballistic missile defense system.

“The airmen and women at Malmstrom play a critical role in our national defense strategy and should have the best possible tools to keep Montana and our nation safe,” Tester said in a news release. “(The) new MH-139 Grey Wolves are more reliable, safe, and efficient. I’m proud to have worked with the Air Force to deliver these aircraft so that our airmen and women have the certainty they need to do their jobs and protect our country.”

The Grey Wolves will be used to secure and transport airmen between missile launch sites, as well as providing airlift support for Montana’s 150 launch facilities. A total of 80 Grey Wolf helicopters are expected to be purchased by the Air Force to provide support at ICBM facilities in Wyoming, North Dakota, Colorado, and Nebraska as well as in Montana. These bases currently maintain a fleet of 63 Huey helicopters to meet that purpose. The landmark “Huey” first entered operational service with the U.S. Air Force in 1970, and though it has been upgraded over the past 54 years the design is well past its operational lifetime.

Boeing won a $2.38 billion fixed-price award for the Huey replacement program in September 2018, with an initial anticipated delivery date by 2023. However, delays in obtaining the necessary FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) certifications for the Grey Wolf set the project back.

In addition, Boeing was forced to redesign one of the sensor fairings on the front half of the aircraft, which were found to potentially lead to incorrect pilot airspeed readings that could have caused a crash. The delays set the delivery of Grey Wolf helicopters to Malmstrom Air Force Base back by about a year and a half.

“(The Grey Wolf helicopters) close the capability gaps of the UH-1N ‘Hueys’ in areas of speed, range, endurance, payload, and survivability in support of the command’s ICBM missions,” Air Force officials told the Great Falls Tribune in Nov. 2020. “They can also perform civil search and rescue, airlift support, National Capital Region missions, as well as survival school and test support.”

According to Air & Space Forces magazine the Grey Wolf helicopters have a maximum speed of 167 mph and a range of 890 miles. The are armed with two M240 7.62 mm machine guns and can each accommodate up to 15 passengers including two pilots and a flight engineer.

As far back as 2016 Tester expressed serious concerns regarding Malmstrom’s outdated Huey helicopter fleet, detailing that it lacked the capability to fully secure the country’s ICBM sites. Tester pressed the Air Force in 2018 to provide a detailed timeline on the program’s replacement plan. He later sent a bipartisan letter urging the Department of Defense to replace the Huey helicopters.

In November 2020, Montana Sen. Steve Daines released the following message.

“Today’s announcement that Malmstrom will be receiving these critical helicopter upgrades is great news for Montana and our country’s national security. I’m proud to have fought to secure this critical upgrade for Malmstrom and I look forward to seeing the upgraded helicopters in action in the future.”

Last April, Tester brought Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall to Malmstrom and received a side-by-side comparison of the new MH-139 Grey Wolf to the old Huey fleet. Kendall is responsible for organizing, training, and equipping the U.S. Air and Space Forces. He directs the Department of the Air Force’s annual budget of over $173 billion and is accountable for the welfare of nearly 700,000 active duty, Guard, Reserve, and civilian Airmen, and their families.