New Black Hawk Variant on the Horizon (UPDATED)

By Jon Harper
The engineering development model UH-60V Black Hawk hovers above the runway as part of its successful initial test flight.

The Army’s UH-60 Black Hawk program recently hit a key milestone when a prototype of the V-variant successfully completed its first test flight. The project is an effort to enhance the service’s aviation fleet without breaking the budget for modernization.

The Black Hawk helicopter transports troops and equipment into battle. It also supports other logistics activities and medical evacuation. 

The aircraft gained fame in popular culture when it was featured in the film Black Hawk Down about the 1993 Battle for Mogadishu in Somalia. It was back in the spotlight in 2011 after a modified, stealthy version of the platform carried Navy SEALs to Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan where they killed the al-Qaida leader.

But many of the Army’s Black Hawks are outdated and aging, and the service is looking to modernize its fleet.

The first UH-60A was built in the 1970s, with the follow-on L-variant coming online in the 1980s. 

“The Lima cockpit largely has not changed since that time,” said Lt. Col. Andrew Duus, H-60 product manager at Army program executive office aviation. “There have been upgrades to radios and to the GPS of course, but the primary instrumentation … has pretty much remained unchanged.”

The UH-60V program looks to transform the UH-60L into a more capable platform by installing a digital cockpit.

“What we’re doing is taking out the old cockpit, all the analog gauges, and we’re replacing them with state-of-the-art multifunction … displays and all of the computing hardware to go along with that,” Duus said.

The upgrades will provide operational advantages for aviators, he said.

“What 60 Victor allows them to do is to have greater situational awareness in the cockpit and it also reduces their workload in the cockpit and allows them to focus more on accomplishing their missions,” he said.

Not having numerous “stovepiped systems” to monitor will reduce distractions for pilots, he said.

The new cockpit will include a moving map capability so they can see exactly where they are on the battlefield, as well as the location of friendly and enemy forces. For those who flew the L-variant, the moving map was located on a digital kneeboard that was strapped to the aviator’s leg, Duus noted.

“That wasn’t integrated into the cockpit, so you had to divide your attention constantly between … the analog gauges which were located in various spots on the dashboard, down to your leg where the kneeboard resided for you to see the moving map,” he said.

In the UH-60V, all of the important information that an aviator needs will be accessible through the multifunction displays on the cockpit screen.

“All of the system indicators and readouts … all of your pilotage information such as your vertical speed, your altimeter, your air speed [will be] all fused together so you don’t have to scan across numerous locations within your dashboard,” Duus said.

The Army is also seeking training benefits and cost savings through commonality. The Sikorsky-built UH-60M already has a digital cockpit, he noted.

“One of the things we’re doing is trying to make the cockpit as much like … the most current UH-60, which is the UH-60 Mike,” he said. “For 60 Victor all we have to do is mirror that and it reduces our training requirement because for the aviator you’re going to be able to go from a Victor to a Mike model or vice versa, and the buttons you push are going to be in the same spot.”

The aircraft will have about 80 percent common components, Duus said. When it comes to weaponry, both models will be 
equipped with the M240 machine gun.

“From a training perspective the impact is significant because [for the L and M-variants] the courses of instruction are different because the cockpits are different,” he said. Making the UH-60V layout similar to the UH-60M will reduce the burden on the Army’s aviation training institutions, he added.

The commonality will also reduce the “negative habit transfer” that sometimes occurs when pilots fly different versions of the same aircraft in successive assignments, he noted.

But the greatest advantage of the UH-60V program is the cost savings, Duus said.

The projected per unit cost of a UH-60V upgrade is about $4 million, whereas the price tag for a new UH-60M is nearly $16 million, according to Army budget documents.

“We are meeting our users’ requirements by installing a modern cockpit that is very similar to the 60 Mike … but we are doing it on a budget,” Duus said. “We understand that we can’t afford to buy an entire fleet of UH-60 Mike model aircraft, so the UH-60 Victor is a cost-effective way to give our troops the capabilities they need to accomplish their mission.”  

The savings could free up money to spend on next-generation systems, he noted. The Army hopes to develop a family of new military helicopters, as well as an improved propulsion system for Black Hawks and AH-64 Apaches. The initiatives are known as future vertical lift and the improved turbine engine program, respectively.

“Establishing a program like 60 Victor just allows us to be fiscally smart as we set our sights on future vertical lift and other capabilities like … the improved turbine engine program,” Duus said.

The UH-60V program is already off the ground. The first test flight of an engineering development model occurred in January near Meridianville, Alabama.

“That first flight was really just a validation of the basic functionality that we expect in a helicopter cockpit,” Duus said. “All systems functioned the proper way and we were very pleased with the result. … It was a very successful test flight.”

The aircraft has since been turned over to the Army’s Redstone Test Center for additional trials. “They will begin executing our developmental test plan where we just continue to validate and verify all the functionality in the cockpit through test flights,” he said.

A total of five prototypes are slated to be built including three by Redstone Defense Systems, the contractor that installed the cockpit on the first prototype.

The company will provide the installation kits to a team at Corpus Christi Army Depot where two additional prototypes will be assembled.

“That’s just to further verify and validate the installation instructions and reduce risk once we enter the production phase” at the depot, Duus said.

A UH-60 recapitalization effort is already in the works there, he noted.

“While we’re doing that process we’re going to do the modification of the cockpit at that time. So the aircraft will come in a 60 Lima and be converted to a 60 Victor. … It’s a cost savings to the Army because we’re doing those two major maintenance activities at the same time.”

PEO Aviation is partnering with the Army Aviation and Missile Research Engineering and Development Center, and the Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, on the UH-60V project. Redstone Defense Systems is serving as the prime contractor, while Northrop Grumman is the subcontractor responsible for providing the software, mission computers, multifunction displays, data transfer systems and other cockpit components.

None of the early development or production work is being performed by Sikorsky, the original equipment manufacturer for the Black Hawk, Duus noted.

“One of the advantages of doing it this way is that we are getting the technical data package associated with the kits with the 60 Victor cockpit,” he said. “Our strategy is to compete the building of these kits in full-rate production, which … allows the government to get the greatest amount of value for our money through full and open competition.” 

The cockpits will have systems architectures that are aligned with the Future Airborne Capability Environment Technical Standard, an Open Group Standard, to allow for more seamless integration of new capabilities into the aircraft. The Open Group FACE Consortium is the copyright holder and developer of the FACE Technical Standard.

“The solution being provided to the … UH-60V program will be the first to offer a truly open systems architecture based on a FACE-aligned architecture with software generated using model-based design tools,” Kevin Brabec, director of business development for Northrop Grumman, said in an email. 

This approach allows for technology upgrades with reduced development cycle times compared with associated legacy systems, he said. 

“Being based on a FACE-aligned architecture means that new components or software that meet these non-proprietary/open standard interface requirements can be incorporated easily,” he added.

The program is taking a low-risk approach to development. The hardware and software components that make up the UH-60V avionics package utilized non-developmental hardware and open-designed software, Brabec noted. 

“The component technologies that make up this cockpit upgrade are all mature and all have high” technology readiness levels, he said.

The program is scheduled to reach Milestone C for production in December 2018. Requests for proposals for full-rate production are expected to go out in the 2020 timeframe. The Army’s acquisition objective is 760 aircraft, Duus said.

The UH-60V project is moving forward at a time of budget turmoil for the Pentagon. UH-60M procurement funding declined by approximately $800 million in the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2017 budget request, and the planned buy was slashed from 60 to 36. 

The Army has a multiyear procurement contract with Sikorksy but the service is not reaping the full benefits, according to Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Daniel Allyn.

“Our multiyear programs for our aviation fleet are all on the floor,” he told lawmakers at a Senate Armed Services Committee readiness and management support subcommittee hearing in February. Procurement is “absolutely at the minimum level to keep those contracts alive. We cannot operate that way. The unit cost for every aircraft is increased each time we do that. And yet year over year, we’re put into this dilemma.”

Nevertheless, the UH-60V project is still on track, Duus said. “At this time I’m fully funded and aligned to meet all of my program baseline requirements.”  

Doug Berenson, a defense and aerospace market analyst and managing director at the consulting firm Avascent, expects aviation modernization budgets to receive a shot in the arm under President Donald Trump as the new commander-in-chief focuses on “rebuilding” the U.S. military.

There will be funding for “a lot of mods and upgrades of existing systems,” Berenson said during a conference call about the defense budget outlook.

For “UH-60 and a raft of other ongoing production programs, I think this will also be a significant area of focus for added procurement money,” he said. “The Trump plan really wants to use defense procurement as a means of priming the pump of manufacturing jobs. But also I think it fundamentally goes to a strategic imperative to recapitalizing the force more rapidly or increasing the size of the force.”

Clarification: The updated version of the story clarifies that the Open Group FACE Consortium is the copyright holder and developer of the FACE Technical Standard.


Topics: Air Power, Army News

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