“We know that in the future we are going to need to have a lethal capability, which drives us to a future attack reconnaissance platform. The Apache is the world’s greatest but there will come a time when we look at leap ahead technology,“ Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville told a small group of reporters.
A future attack-reconnaissance helicopter, now in its conceptual phase, is a key part of a wide-spanning, multi-aircraft Army Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program. FVL seeks a family of next-generation aircraft to begin emerging in the 2030s, consisting of attack, utility and heavy-class air assets. Ultimately, the FVL effort seeks to replace the Apache, Black Hawk and Chinook.
Current areas of exploration, McConville elaborated, include examinations of aerodynamics, aircraft configurations, new sensor technology and the physics of advanced attack helicopter flight.
The Army is now working on two Initial Capabilities Documents (ICDs) to lay the conceptual groundwork for new weapons, munitions and a supplemental next-generation drone.
The new attack-recon helicopter is intended to follow the – now much further along – FVL utility helicopter program effort; currently being developed as a Science & Technology demonstrator program, this program now includes built, airborne helicopters.
The concept informing a new attack-recon initiative rests upon the realization that even the most advanced existing Apache helicopter, originally emerging in the 1980s, may ultimately have some limitations as threats evolve in coming years. Although the most current Apache, the AH-64E, contains composite rotorblades, improved avionics and a new 701D engine, a new platform would be expected to introduce a quantum leap forward with respect to attack helicopter technology.
For instance, the new aircraft will be engineered to integrate weapons and sensor systems to autonomously detect, designate and track targets, perform targeting operations during high-speed maneuvers, conduct off-axis engagements, track multiple targets simultaneously and optimize fire control performance such that weapons can accommodate environmental effects such as wind and temperature, Army officials describe. Any future attack platform will also be optimized for what’s called “high-hot” conditions, defined as 95-degrees Fahrenheit and elevations of 6,000 feet, where thinner air can make helicopter maneuvers far more challenging.
No particular air frames or specific technologies have as of yet been identified for the new Attack-Recon aircraft, however the new air vehicle itself is likely to contain composite materials, higher-resolution sensors, infrared heat suppressors and radar signature reducing configurations.
Also, in a manner quite consistent with the overall FVL program emphasis, a future attack-recon platform will seek much greater range, speed and fuel efficiency. A longer combat radius, enabled by newer engine technology, brings massive combat advantages. Principally, attacking air crews will, in many mission scenarios, be much less likely to need what the Army calls Forward Air Refueling Positions (FARP). FARPs are forward positioned mini-bases, often placed within hostile or enemy territory, designed to refuel and re-arm helicopters. A helicopter able to travel faster and farther without needing as much refueling naturally decreases combat risk.
One of the ICDs is preparing to solicit industry input for a next-generation drone demonstrator aircraft, engineered to work in tandem with an attack helicopter platform. The effort aims to achieve what Army developers describe as greater standoff, meaning an unmanned system can enter hostile combat while helicopter crews remain at a safer distance.
“We need to be dominating the aerial corridor. We will put our UAS’ in that dangerous breach,” said Brig. Gen. Walter Rugen, leader of the FVL Cross-Functional Team.
The new drone, along with the helicopter itself, will call upon advanced iterations of autonomous navigation. Emerging computer algorithms increasingly enable platforms to perform a wider range of functions without needing human intervention, potentially fostering a combat scenario wherein a helicopter crew would operate a forward-positioned armed attack drone.
It makes sense that the Army would envision a new drone for its future attack helicopter as a way to add new dimensions to its existing Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T) technology. Army Apache and Kiowa helicopters have already deployed with an ability to view real-time video feeds from nearby drones from the cockpit of the aircraft. More advanced levels of MUM-T enable helicopter crews to control the flightpath and sensor payloads of nearby drones.
Army program managers have told Warrior Maven that this technology has been impactful in combat, as it has at times enabled Apache crews to see real-time images of a target before they even take-off. Naturally, this not only improves the possibilities for surprise attack, but also minimizes the risk to the helicopters themselves by shortening their exposure to enemy fire.
Pursuing a new attack helicopter platform, including these more advanced iterations of MUM-T, involves several key areas of emphasis, senior Army leaders say. These include rapid prototyping, continued experimentation and efforts to engineer the technical infrastructure sufficient to integrate new weapons as they emerge.
“We gain insight from prototypes that help us derive requirements,” said Rugen.
The developmental philosophy for the FVL program, Army leaders describe, seeks to engineer a platform able to evolve as technology evolves to accommodate new weapons, sensors, avionics, as they are discovered. Senior Army developers have explained that the idea is not just to build the best helicopter for today, or even the next few years, but rather to engineer new aircraft designed to include the best technologies for the 2030s, and beyond. Rugen described this strategy in terms of “spiral development.”
In practice, what this means is that instead of looking for near-term or immediate replacements for things like the Apache’s 30mm chain gun, Hellfire missiles or infrared targeting sensors (Modernized Target Acquisition Designation Sights) – Army developers seek to architect a platform able to embrace both near-term and future yet-to-be-developed technologies.
This approach is of particular relevance to the second ICD now in development focusing on weapons and munitions.