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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

New Engines, Upgraded Systems Power Boeing AH-64 Echo

By Douglas Nelms

Boeing has now delivered 40 newly developed AH-64E Apaches under the initial low rate initial production (LRIP) program—31 going to the U.S. Army and nine to foreign military sales (FMS) customers. The 31 aircraft are the first of 51 being produced for the Army under LRIP. Those 51 do not include those going to FMS customers, according to Col. Jeffrey E. Hager, project manager for Apache.

Total order for the Echo model still stands at 690 aircraft, to be delivered at an estimated rate of four per month, Hager said. Another 79 aircraft are currently projected for international operators under FMS, although “others are standing behind those,” with letters of request signed.

There have been reports that the Army has deferred the purchase of new-build AH-64Es for five years under the Army’s Equipment Modernization plan. However, these are “misleading or incomplete,” according to an Army spokesperson. The new builds were actually shifted outside the Program Objective Memorandum (POM) prior to the full rate production decision. At the same time, the remaining line was increased to maintain 48 aircraft per year and maintain the minimum EOQ (Economic Order Quantity), she noted. There is still a requirement for 56 new builds for a total of 690 aircraft.

First deliveries of the aircraft to the Army began in October 2011. The initial operational unit to be fully equipped with the Echo model is the 1-229th Attack Helicopter Battalion (Tiger Sharks) of the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. The 1-229th received its first AH-64E in January, with a full complement of 24 aircraft delivered by the end of April.

These will replace 24 AH-64D models already attached to the unit. The unit is currently scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan next year, according to CPT Jesse Paulsboe, PAO for the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade.

While the Army has been hit with a nine percent budget cut under the sequestration, “where the impact really hits home is the work force with two days [off] per pay period,” rather than in a reduction of the AH-64E order, Hager said. “But the message is that we still have a mission [to introduce the Echo into the Army], and that we need to do the mission effectively, even with the less hours that we have.”

Deliveries of the AH-64E will run through FY27 to reach the total of 690 aircraft. These will be a combination of remanufactured, reusing exiting parts, and new-build aircraft. The first 43 produced under LRIP will be remanufactured AH-64 airframes with existing fuselages. The majority of the remaining 647 aircraft will be remanufactured using zero-time fuselages, he said. “This strategy extends the aircraft useful life while significantly reducing the production cost.” Only 56 of the total 690 will be truly “new build” aircraft requiring all new parts and components.

While the Echo will have numerous improvements over the Delta, the major change will be in terms of performance, Hager noted.

Upgrades include the more powerful transmission and engines, along with composite main rotor blades. The transmission is the first new transmission in the almost 30-year history of the Apache, and the first time in the history of the AH-64 that the aircraft will be engine limited rather than transmission limited, Hager said.

The new 2,000 SHP General Electric T-700-GE-701D engines will raise the performance level of the aircraft above that of the original Alpha models, he said. The added weight put on the Delta model by adding capabilities had actually reduced the performance of the aircraft. The Echo model restores the lost performance while adding modernized capabilities.

The new engines will also include an enhanced digital electronic control unit (EDECU) for full digital control for better fuel performance and power, similar to FADEC. The aircraft will also have new avionics architecture versus the Delta model, allowing more “plug and play” capability for future hardware and software improvements.

Three major improvements for the pilots include Link 16 interoperability, a cognitive decision aiding system (CDAS) and Level 4 tactical common data link (TCDL) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) control.

Col. Hager explained that the AH-64E will be the first Army rotary wing system capable of communicating on the Link 16 network. This capability will significantly expand Apache’s interoperability footprint to include additional Air Force and Navy platforms already communicating over Link 16. As an example, Apaches perform missions at relatively low altitude in more reconnaissance and attack situations, he said. Air Force aircraft typically fly higher and faster. An Air Force aircraft may detect slow-moving targets on the ground and pass the location to the Apaches over the Link 16 network. The Apaches can then maneuver in and determine if the target is a threat, all while the Air Force platform continues its original mission. Link 16 will be fielded in 2015.

The CDAS will introduce a set of new capabilities known as “behaviors” that serve to reduce pilot workload, he said. For example, one CDAS behavior will automatically detect when the aircraft has been painted by an enemy radar missile system, determine the nature of the attack to include missile range, and provide the pilot with options to avoid the attack. The pilot simply clicks on the preferred option and the aircraft maneuvers the aircraft to safety, then updates its position to take it back to the original mission flight plan once the threat is resolved.

The Level 4 TCDL UAV control allows full communication between the aircraft’s pilots and a TCDL-controllable UAV, with a range of more than 50 kilometers, Hager said.

The pilot of the Echo can control and fire the drone, or he can use it as a “third crewmember,” with the drone’s ground controller directing the UAV wherever the Apache pilot needs it.

“The ground controller for the UAV is always watching the sensor systems, so the pilot can ask the controller to watch a building or intersection while is off servicing another target. The controller can then call the pilot, letting him know what the UAV is showing.” The pilot can view in real time what the drone is seeing, then go back and service that target. “This gives the pilot the ability to get the situational awareness very quickly,” Hager said.

While it is too early to start looking at the “AH-64 Block IV,” a Modernization Integration Strategy Team is looking ahead “at changes that could be possible for the aircraft,” he explained.

One such change will be a maritime, or “over-water” version that will allow the fire control radar to identify and target ships.

Currently, the aircraft’s fire control radar is confused even by waves in the water, presenting all kinds of false targets. With the new maritime radar mode, the Apache will be able to see and target ships just as it does now with tanks and other land-based vehicles, he said. The Apache team has already started preliminary design efforts for the new maritime capability.

Lastly, what the AH-64E is not. It is no longer the AH-64D Block III, despite people still calling it that, Hager said. Also, the term “Guardian” is just an unofficial nickname, as Huey and Loach were nicknames for the UH-1 Iroquois and OH-6 Cayuse. The name “Huey” stuck. “Loach” didn’t. 

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