Updates Scheduled for Special Operations Aircraft

By Yasmin Tadjdeh
A CV-22 Osprey

Photo: Defense Dept.

As commandos face new and complex missions around the globe, acquisition leaders are planning a slew of upgrades for Special Operations Command’s inventory of helicopters and tilt-rotor aircraft.

The modifications will include improvements to engine performance and survivability.

At Air Force Special Operations Command, officials are working to make improvements to the CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, said Col. Lee Anderson, AFSOC’s chief of operations training.

The aircraft provides commandos with long-range, high-speed vertical lift, he said.

“The farther away I can launch from, the more flexibility I have … to cover a broad area from one location, or … to be able to respond quickly to something where I don’t have time to set up a forward staging area closer to the objective,” he said.

AFSOC wants to improve the platform’s reliability, maintainability, speed, range and lift, he noted.

“Reliability is in the near term,” he said. “As we achieve our goals for reliability, the performance upgrades would follow over the course of the next few years.”

Anderson was mum on details, but said AFSOC was investigating modifications to the platform’s engine, as well as its aerodynamic thrust.

The command is currently in the process of upgrading the CV-22’s radar system, Raytheon’s APQ-186, with the company’s APQ-187 which is known as Silent Knight.

The radar will include new, modern electronics that replace obsolete components that are difficult to acquire, he said.

“During cruise when I’m ingressing or egressing, the approved radar will allow me to do some things that I can’t do today,” he said.

In the science and technology community, work is being done to develop radar systems that can be used during brownout or whiteout conditions, Anderson said.

Some of these improvements include aircraft handling qualities such as in-flight controls and autopilot modes.

Additionally, the command is researching how the aircraft can better relay information to pilots during such degraded conditions.

“Some of those things involve synthetic vision or symbology … to improve the pilot’s awareness,” Anderson said. “Modern aircraft are generally very powerful computers that know a lot of things.” The challenge becomes how the aircraft and the pilot can better collaborate.

AFSOC is also interested in adding new sensors to the aircraft, such as LiDAR and high frequency radar systems that can map the area immediately in front of an aircraft for better situational awareness, he said.

“Those have been percolating in industry and science and technology circles for the last decade. … It’s kind of on our to-do list,” he said.

However, the command needs systems compact enough that they would not substantially affect operations, he noted.

“As we balance size, weight, power and performance with an aircraft where drag is a significant factor, we’re looking to … balance our sensor capabilities to be able to achieve that without degrading aircraft performance,” he said.

Currently, CV-22s employ a single FLIR sensor ball. “I don’t really want to add a second sensor turret to add a second sensor,” he said.

Both the Defense Department and industry have made strides in reducing the size of sensors and fitting them into one turret, he noted. “The goal is to get a single sensor turret that can do electro-optical and infrared and some sort of active, whether it be laser radar, millimeter wave … [or] another active sensor,” he said.

Special Operations Command also is looking to equip the CV-22 with new weapons. The platform currently has a .50 caliber weapon on board.

“We are very interested in pursuing solutions to do a better job of arming the aircraft without significant penalties to speed and range,” Anderson said. The command is currently looking at both guided and turreted weapons.

Over the past several years, SOCOM has worked to employ a high-energy laser on an AC-130J Ghostrider gunship. The CV-22 program office is closely watching the effort, Anderson said.

“We’re kind of waiting on high-energy weapons to get proven in an aviation environment before we look at this particular aircraft,” he said. SOCOM leadership “is really pushing hard for a powerful attack weapon on a dedicated strike platform … which is different than an assault lift platform where every pound that you put into arming the aircraft is a pound that you don’t have for the assault lift.”

Developmentally, a laser that is small enough to compare to a .50 caliber weapon in terms of size, weight and power is a long way off, he said. “We’re still in a position where that is going to need to continue to mature,” he added.

SOCOM’s program office for rotary wing aircraft is also working on preparing helicopters for much needed upgrades, said Army Col. David Phillips, the office’s program executive officer.

“PEO rotary wing continues to focus on recapitalization, modernization and the future of Special Operations Forces vertical lift,” he said in an email to National Defense.

The office’s assets include the light assault/attack A/MH-6M Little Bird, the medium assault MH-60M Black Hawk and the heavy assault MH-47G Chinook aircraft.

For the Little Bird, a Block 3.0 upgrade is aimed at enhancing the platform’s structure, performance and safety margins while increasing situational awareness, Phillips said.

Additionally, “main/tail rotor drive-train and engine control improvement efforts will reduce airframe loads and add safety and performance margins,” he said.

There will also be avionics upgrades to replace obsolescent components.

The first Block 3.0 aircraft will be delivered in 2019, he said.

The Black Hawk modernization program is designed to modify the Army’s UH-60M aircraft for special operations usage, Phillips said. “The MH-60M helicopter provides an increased payload, increased reliability for the users and better situational awareness for aircrews,” he said.

PEO rotary wing recently completed Block 1.0 integration, flight test qualification and inducted the first platform into a production line, Phillips said. Delivery of the first Block 1.0 aircraft is slated for fiscal year 2017.

For Special Operations Command’s Chinook, the office is looking at two major efforts, Phillips said. First is a Block 2.3 upgrade that will procure, integrate and install crashworthy gunner’s seats, electrical improvement and payload restoration, he said.

The next is known as the “renew” program. It “will replace the majority of our MH-47G legacy airframes with newly built machined airframes incorporating emerging technologies to maintain mission effectiveness,” he said. The first platforms to come out of the program are planned for delivery in fiscal year 2020.  

The command also plans to enhance aircraft survivability, avionics and navigation and sensor systems through two efforts: the degraded visual environment pilotage system and Silent Knight radar.

“The DVEPS program will fuse information from aircraft sensors with terrain elevation data to display real-time reference points, obstacles and landing zone information to the aviator,” Phillips said. “The DVEPS solution will provide MH-47 and MH-60 aircrews with visual cues for obstacle avoidance and aircraft control during all phases of flight and significantly increase crew and passenger survivability.”

Production is slated to start in fiscal year 2018. The Silent Knight radar program will enter full-rate production in fiscal year 2018 as well, he said.

SOCOM is also preparing for new aircraft that will come down the line in the 2030s, Phillips said during a panel discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

The command is working alongside the Army and the Marine Corps to develop a new type of rotorcraft known as future vertical lift.

FVL is an effort spearheaded by the Army — and influenced by some of the other services — to develop a revolutionary new aircraft that would replace thousands of aging platforms in the 2030s.

The program is being preceded by what is known as the joint multi-role technology demonstrator, which will include demonstrations from a Boeing-Sikorsky team offering the SB-1 Defiant and Bell Helicopter offering the V-280 Valor.

There is significant amount of alignment between the services when it comes to what capabilities they want out of the platform, said Col. Erskine Bentley, Army Training and Doctrine Command’s capability manager for future vertical lift.

“We still have … a lot of work to do in that area but we’ve definitely identified the trade space that is there,” he said.

While the Army, Marine Corps and SOCOM may have different requirements for the number of troops it would like the platform to carry, the services can swap out payload, he noted.

“For instance, we could trade part of that payload that the Army uses for soldiers into fuel to increase the range that the Marine Corps needs or that SOCOM needs,” Bentley said.

Col. John Barranco, with the Marine Corps’ rotorcraft requirements office, said: “Will there be compromise? Yeah, of course there will be. But that isn’t a bad thing.”

The reality is that the United States military faces a fiscally constrained environment, he said. “Anyone who thinks that’s going to change radically for the better is probably fooling themselves.

“We need shared technologies, we need shared systems, we need shared aviation supply and logistics,” he said. “That’s the reality. It’s not just a fiscal reality; it’s going to be a battlefield reality. We’re not going to be able to sustain, move [and] supply multiple, unique systems across the services like we’ve done in the past.”

The services hope to avoid pitfalls that befell some embattled joint programs, like the F-35 joint strike fighter, the panel said.

“This is a multiservice project versus joint,” he said. “We set up a joint program office for F-35. That was kind of an unheard of creation … it was not a construct that existed previously. … That’s not what we are doing here.”

The Army is leading the FVL effort with participation from the Marine Corps and SOCOM, he noted.

“We’re not creating something new from scratch,” he said. “This is structured differently than F-35.”

Topics: Transport Aircraft

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