Magazine article National Defense

Avionics Upgrade Underway for Special Ops Helicopters

Magazine article National Defense

Avionics Upgrade Underway for Special Ops Helicopters

Article excerpt

During the next several years, U.S. Army special operations helicopters will be upgraded with modern avionics, designed to improve the capabilities of the aircraft, while making them easier to maintain, officials said.

The technology is called common avionics architecture system--or CAAS--and will be installed on special operations MH-47G Chinooks, MH-60M Black Hawks, and MH/AH-6M Little Birds cockpits. If the program goes as planned, more than 140 helicopters could be upgraded by 2010.

U.S. Special Operations Command officials said that common hardware and software in all three aircraft should reduce the logistics demands on aviation units and simplify training. The open avionics architecture also will make it easier to upgrade the aircraft with software from third-party vendors.

Most important to special operations aircrews, the CAAS will help manage cockpit workload and enhance situational awareness.

Rockwell Collins received a contract in April--worth up to $40 million--for the avionics upgrade. Plans call for CAAS flight rests to begin in the summer of 2003 and first production deliveries are scheduled for fiscal year 2004.

The aircraft of the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) are uniquely equipped to fly long missions in hostile airspace at night and in adverse weather. In one typical mission early in Operation Enduring Freedom last year, an MH-47E carried a Special Forces A-team from a forward support base in Uzbekistan to a rendezvous with anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan. The Chinook crew used multi-mode radar to find a way through mountains in zero visibility, refueled at low altitude from an Air Force MC-130P tanker and exercised aircraft survivability equipment to counter an apparent air defense threat. The MH-47E then penetrated a dust storm before climbing over mountains into solid cloud.

From 16,500 feet, the Chinook crew again used terrain following radar to let down into the target area and deliver the special operators. On the return, they descended from altitudes near 20,000 feet in zero visibility, refueled once more from an MC-130, and again used radar to negotiate the mountains. Overall, the mission lasted 8.3 hours, including 6.3 hours in adverse weather over hostile territory.

Long, high-workload missions are commonplace for the highly trained aviators of the 160th SOAR. However, the fleet is suffering from age and attrition. The MH-47E with its extra fuel and multi-mode radar is the most requested platform in the special operations community, but two of the helicopters were lost and another severely damaged in 2001. Despite incremental improvements, all the helicopters of the 160th are due for recapitalization.

Mixed Fleet

The 160th SOAR currently operates 23 MH-47Es, 11 MH-47Ds, 23 MH-60Ks, approximately 45 MH-60Ls, and 40-odd AH/MH-6s. The mixed fleet uses two proprietary avionics systems, both integrated on MIL STD 1553B databuses. They are costly to maintain, as a result of obsolescent hardware and monolithic code software.

The Lockheed Martin integrated avionics system of the MH-47E and MH-60K is programmed in Jovial. The Rockwell Collins cockpit management system in the MH-47D, MH-60L, and MH-6/AH-6 uses ADA 83. Fleet upgrades must be written in both languages, and the proprietary architectures require costly regression testing when functions are changed or capabilities are added.

Integrated or 'glass' cockpits enable helicopter crews to access aircraft systems, thermal and radar imagery, navigation/communication functions and aircraft survivability equipment through the multifunction displays and center console control/display units. But much of the hardware in the special operations fleet is out of production. The technology has been surpassed by commercial developments.

The MH-47E and MH-60K were fielded in 1995 with monochrome cathode ray tube displays, about 6 inches square. …

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