Joining the Battle

By Frank Colucci | June 1, 2008
Send Feedback

The Army wants helicopter crews and ground troops to share real-time video and still imagery, text orders and situation reports, and graphical battle plans. The combat payoff could be dramatic. Boeing simulation studies show a networked Block III AH-64D Apache attack helicopter is three times more lethal and a networked, air-ground force 2.9 times more survivable than today’s forces in an urban fight.

Some digital connectivity is in Army cockpits today. The Video from Unmanned Aerial Systems for Interoperability Teaming Level II (VUIT-2) demonstration displayed video from a Shadow unmanned aircraft system (UAS) in an AH-64D, and "protoduction" systems are going to combat units. Pilots of the Boeing CH-47F cargo helicopter can see Blue Force Tracking (BFT) positions of friendly units overlaid on digital maps. Aviators flying the baseline Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawk utility helicopter can send and receive text in Joint Variable Message Format (JVMF).

Enhanced networking with joint-service air and ground units nevertheless requires layers of new data standards, radio waveforms and hardware, and operating and application software. The objective for Army Aviation is seamless connectivity with the Future Combat System (FCS) Brigade Combat Team and broader access to the Global Information Grid (GIG) around 2015.

The FCS network under development by Boeing Integrated Defense Systems and SAIC makes manned and unmanned aircraft and ground vehicles nodes in a robust, mobile, ad-hoc communications network readily joined by new air or ground units.

"It will move a whole lot more data, and it will move it much more efficiently than the embryonic prototype networks we have today," said Col. Rick Stockhausen, director of concepts and requirements for the Army Aviation Center at Fort Rucker, Ala.

Army aviation today uses relatively slow BFT and Enhanced Position Location Reporting System (EPLRS) networks for some digital data transfer, and frequency-hopping SINCGARS (Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System) radios for secure air-ground voice communications. JVMF requires helicopter crews to fill text blanks. "It’s a very rudimentary language and operation across the network," Stockhausen observed.

Future Combat System

The FCS network promises to enhance situational awareness dramatically with more capacity and less latency. It will support collateral planning with streaming video, text chat, shared white-boarding and voice communications, all readily transferred by the System-Of-Systems Common Operating Environment (SOSCOE) to new battle command applications.

Initial Tier I FCS connectivity will connect Army helicopters with ground vehicles using BFT links that carry kilobits per second. Seamless Tier III connectivity awaits FCS waveforms hosted by the Aviation and Marine/Fixed-Base (AMF) version of the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) to move megabits per second. Comparative data rates are misleading, but with Tier III connectivity, Army aviators also will see the bigger picture available through Air Force and Navy Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) platforms.

Through FCS brigade headquarters, helicopter pilots may access regional maps and other resources on the Department of Defense GIG. "The FCS ad-hoc network is the tactical extension of the Global Information Grid," explained Maj. Troy Crosby, assistant product manager in the Joint Inter-Agency, Multinational Interoperability Program Office running this year’s Joint Expeditionary Force Experiment (JEFX).

JEFX 08, scheduled in April at the Nevada Test and Training Range, was to team an Apache Longbow with surrogate FCS unmanned aerial systems and vehicles equipped with JTRS Ground Mobile Radios. The cast of JEFX players includes Air Force and Navy assets — J-STARS radar planes, B-52 bombers, and F-15 and F-18 strike aircraft. The Block II AH-64D with Block III Manned/Unmanned Common Architecture Processor (MCAP) hosts portions of the FCS SOSCOE and the FCS Wideband Networking Waveform (WNW) and Soldier Radio Waveform (SRW). "It’s those common waveforms that are going to move the data from platform to platform in the FCS network," said Crosby.

In the closing act of JFEX, the Apache was to receive video from UASs and re-transmit the imagery to the ground with the SRW waveform. The experiment will document technical lessons learned, and offer the Army Training and Doctrine Command future capabilities.

Apache VUIT

Separate from the JFEX experiment, and expedited for current combat operations, VUIT-2 was integrated on the AH-64D by the Army Aviation Applied Technology Directorate (AATD) at Fort Eustis, Va. The two-way data link brings UAS video images and metadata (identification and targeting information) into the front and rear cockpits of the Apache Longbow. The UAS also appears as an icon on the Apache digital map. VUIT-2 integrates the functionality of the One System Remote Video Terminal (OSRVT) developed by AAI Corp., now part of Textron, into the AH-64D multipurpose displays.

"I think it gives the Apache crew a reduction in sensor-to-shooter timelines," said project lead and experimental test pilot Lt. Col. Charles Walls. "A picture is worth a thousand words…. By showing me a picture of the UAV that the operator is tracking, the Apache pilot can see that and orient his sensors and weapons on that target." VUIT-2 also sends electro-optical imagery from the AH-64D Modernized Target Acquisition and Designation Sight (M-TADS) to ground stations. "You’re getting good situational awareness of the battle out to all the players," said Walls.

Block I and II AH-64Ds already share raw fire control radar data and route information with other Apache Longbow helicopters via the Improved Data Modem (IDM), and they can send and receive text messages via EPLRS. Extended Block II AH-64Ds are integrated on the assembly line with the BFT system to fix friendly positions and send JVMF text messages via L-band commercial satellite links. Block III, Lot IV Apache Longbows delivered in 2014 will share imagery with the FCS via AMF radio and exercise Level IV control over all UAS functions except takeoff and landing. (Test Apaches previously controlled Hunter UASs in the Airborne Manned/Unmanned System Technology and Hunter Standoff Killer Team experiments.)

VUIT-2 gives today’s Block I or II Apache Longbows Level II UAS control only to access UAS imagery. The demonstration effort from May to November last year linked a Block II AH-64D with an RQ-7 Shadow UAS. The Aviation Applied Technology Directorate led a team including AAI, L-3 Communications and Lockheed Martin to package a multi-band receiver, UHF modem and C/L-band and UHF antenna in a Tri-band OSRVT Mast Mounted Assembly and associated receiver pallet for the AH-64D. The VUIT-2 Interface-Power system includes a Thermite computer from Quantum3D, San Jose, Calif., and a Mini Tactical Common Data Link that sends and receives imagery and metadata independent of existing Apache radios. The successful demonstration concluded with M-TADS video linked to ground stations. The technology directorate is now making VUIT-2 systems for deploying Apache battalions.

Wider Net

The next-generation Block III Apache Longbow will integrate UAS imagery directly with the attack helicopter’s targeting system via AMF radios, Boeing/Rockwell Collins MCAP processors, and a new open architecture. "Really, Block III open system architecture is the enabler. The network radios will provide the pipeline, but… you have to have the advanced processor in order to do something with all that data," said Paul Myers, Boeing chief architect for advanced rotorcraft systems.

Deliveries of the Block III, Lot I AH-64D start in 2011, but the new Apache Longbow will not be the first U.S. Army helicopter with open systems architecture. CH-47F cargo and MH-47G Special Operations Chinooks already share the Rockwell Collins Common Avionics Architecture System (CAAS), readily upgraded with new hardware and software. Chinook crews in CAAS cockpits can receive digital Command and Control information and limited threat data via the IDM, BFT and ARC-220 high-frequency radio. CAAS also incorporates Ethernet protocols to accommodate AMF/JTRS radios. With FCS protocols, CAAS cockpits are ready to display real-time imagery. "The main thing is they need to have the data links and radios to handle the new sources of information," said Harold Teeterman, Rockwell Collins system architecture engineer.

Boeing and Rockwell Collins collaborated on CAAS networking demonstrations and ran a micro-edition of the FCS SOSCOE in a Systems Integration Laboratory last year with Operational Flight Program software from the real aircraft. The MH-47G and CH-47F became operational last year with nearly identical five-screen CAAS cockpits. The broader benefit of CAAS remains common hardware and software common to multiple platforms to lighten the logistics and training burden on Army aviation.

A four-screen version of CAAS should attain Initial Operational Capability in 2010 aboard the Special Operations MH-60M Black Hawk. The regular Army utility fleet gets CAAS around 2012 when the UH-60M Upgrade supersedes the Baseline UH-60M now in production. The Baseline UH-60M has an integrated cockpit like that in Sikorsky’s international Black Hawks and provides some digital connectivity with text messaging. CAAS communications software architecture in the UH-60M Upgrade will readily accommodate AMF radios and FCS waveforms to traffic video and graphics. The video processing module in the CAAS cockpit of the UH-60M upgrade also allows for high-definition video inputs. The first unit equipped with the CAAS Black Hawk is due in 2012.

Slimmed down to two multifunction displays, CAAS also integrates the Bell ARH-70A Arapaho. The baseline armed reconnaissance helicopter with target acquisition sensor suite will be able to send and receive still imagery. Objective requirements call for streaming video from UASs. The first unit equipped with the ARH-70A is expected in 2011.

The open systems architecture of CAAS provides additional processing and display capacity to network joint-service platforms. A CAAS cockpit similar to that in the Army CH-47F, for example, will integrate the Marine Corps CH-53E/K cockpit with the Navy Link 16 data link or follow-on Tactical Targeting Network Technology. For Army Aviation, the goal remains an air-ground team with common vision.

Acronym Guide

  • AATD: Aviation Applied Technology Directorate

  • AMF JTRS: Aviation and Marine/Fixed-Base Joint Tactical Radio System

  • BFT: Blue Force Tracking

  • CAAS: Common Avionics Architecture System

  • EPLRS: Enhanced Position Location Reporting System

  • FCS: Future Combat System

  • GIG: Global Information Grid

  • IDM: Improved Data Modem

  • JEFX: Joint Expeditionary Force Experiment

  • JVMF: Joint Variable Message Format

  • MCAP: Manned/Unmanned Common Architecture Processor

  • OSRVT: One System Remote Video Terminal

  • SINCGARS: Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System

  • SOSCOE: System-Of-Systems Common Operating Environment

  • SRW: Soldier Radio Waveform

  • M-TADS: Modernized Target Acquisition and Designation Sight

  • VUIT-2: Video from Unmanned Aerial Systems for Interoperability Teaming Level II

  • WNW: Wideband Networking Waveform

Receive the latest avionics news right to your inbox