Northrop Grumman unveiled a new 20mm chain gun, dubbed Sky Viper, during a media briefing, per Defense News. The chain gun is said to be based on the somewhat larger M230—also manufactured by Northrop Grumman—a 30mm gun which is used to arm AH-64 Apache attack helicopters or some specially modified UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters used in special operations missions.
The company will submit their gun design to the Army for evaluation as part of the Future Vertical Lift program. The initiative would attempt to replace both the Army’s Blackhawk and Apache helicopters with a new platform that would offer superior range and speed compared to the Army’s legacy aircraft. You can read more about the FVL program in this previous National Interest piece.
The Future Vertical Lift program currently has two contenders, one bid from Bell and another joint Boeing-Sikorsky bid, vying to win what would likely be a substantial Army contract.
Sikorsky and Boeing’s bid, the SB-1 Defiant, is based in part on an older Sikorsky design and uses two contra-rotating propellers for lift, complimented at the rear of the fuselage by a pusher propeller for forward movement. Coupled with retractable landing gear and a light-weight composite fuselage, the SB-1 Defiant offers both range and speed advantages over traditional helicopters.
Bell’s V-280 Valor entrant is somewhat similar to the company’s V-22 Osprey tiltroter aircraft in that it has dual tilting rotors. It is however sleeker and more streamlined than the rather bulbous V-22 and has a V-tail assembly. Unlike the V-22, the V-280’s engines remain in place when taking off or landing, with the rotors and drive shafts tilting to a horizontal position, a design that could offer visibility and maneuverability advantages.
Unlike multi-barreled gatling guns which use a high rate of fire for area suppression, Northrop’s chain gun is designed to be more accurate, allowing less shots to be fired with a higher degree of accuracy than comparable guns. And despite firing a smaller-caliber projectile than the M230 it would replace, Northrop anticipates increased lethality compared to other 20mm projectiles thanks to as-yet unspecified newer and more advanced ammunition technology as well as a reduction in both weight and recoil.
Rather than just serving as a utility/cargo transport or medical evacuation platform, the Future Vertical Lift platform would have some serious offensive capability. Though it is unclear where exactly the Sky Viper would be mated to the Future Vertical Lift airframe, it would likely be belly-mounted underneath the pilot’s cockpit, much the same as the Apache’s chain gun is.
Caleb Larson is a defense writer with the National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.