Tampa, FL — 23 May 2018
As US Army COL David Phillips, US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) Program Executive Officer Rotary Wing (PEO RW), outlined his organization’s plans to modernize the SOF helicopter fleet to address the evolving threat, two things became apparent to the industry crowd in attendance at SOFIC: that he’s waiting for the “Big” Army to take a decision on the priorities and timing for its next-generation rotary wing fleet and that he’s not waiting.
SOF platforms—be they air, ground, or marine—are generally tuned-up, high-end derivatives of the platforms of the Military Services. As such, SOCOM rotary wing operators are looking to the Army’s emerging Future Vertical Lift (FVL) Family of Systems to provide the baseline for their next-generation platforms. Phillips and other PEO RW officials have made clear that they “are watching closely” and that they “have a seat at the [FVL] table” shaping requirements as the Army’s PEO Aviation firms up the program planning.
So while PEO RW must wait for the Army to finalize what its FVL “Capability Set” requirements will be, and even the order of platform procurement—i.e., will FVL Cape #3 (utility/attack) come first as previously planned, or will Cape #1 (reconnaissance) sneak in first—Phillips is not waiting for much else. Indeed, PEO RW is actively engaged, and apparently well-resourced to sustain and enhance the current fleet.
- AH-6M / MH-6M Little Bird: Procurement is commencing on the Block III MELB (Mission Enhanced Little Bird). Block III will provide greater capability flying at high altitudes in heat and allow for greater payload capacity. Phillips notes that the Block III upgrade, which includes the incorporation of a longer tail boom, new rear gear box, and new rotor blades, will improve the aircraft’s safety margin. The installation of improved flight controls and an advanced cockpit with full situational awareness and full moving map means that SOCOM “is resetting this aircraft for the long-haul.” Little Bird enhancement plans moving forward include enhancing aircraft survivability via incorporation of advanced IR countermeasures.
- MH-60M Medium Assault Helicopter: SOCOM is engaged in Block I modification to the MH-60M fleet with a focus on increasing the platform’s capability in degraded visual environments (DVE), enhancing the platform’s airborne mission networking kit, and incorporation of DC-powered mini-guns. Moving forward, Block II efforts will focus on incorporating the Army’s Common Infrared Countermeasures (CIRCM) beginning in 2021, followed by enhancement of the platform’s radio and aircraft survivability equipment (ASE).
- Block II MH-47G Chinook Helicopter: SOF forces are now divesting legacy MH-47 aircraft and are recapitalizing one of the oldest fleets in service. In June 2018, SOCOM will commence acquisition of the Block II Chinook for the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) [SOAR (A)]. The Block II enhancements, which are being developed for the Army’s wider CH-47F fleet, include the Advanced Chinook Rotor Blade, which features geometry and a new asymmetric aerofoil to substantially increase the aircraft’s lift capacity. Efforts include the Advanced Parallel Actuator System (APAS) and engine barrier filter to further improve platform flight controls. Introduction of the Silent Knight Radar (SKR) will enhance system survivability. Looking ahead to other enhancements, Phillips noted that there will there be a funded program for weight reduction in the MH-47G. He said that his organization has already taken 500 pounds off the aircraft through wiring runs and reconfiguration and that the Program Office is inserting that achievement into the new (MH-47G) recapitalization line.
Speaking to platform modernization issues that apply across the PEO RW enterprise, Philips made clear that PEO RW is line with the Army on the ITEP (Integrated Turbine Engine Program). He shared internal SOCOM consensus on the imperative for cockpit modernization in SOF rotary wing fleets and the associated sorting of wants and needs into formal requirements. He said his operators want and deserve “heads-up, eyes-out” from their cockpits and that lighter, multi-function displays offer the potential for 30 percent weight reduction, which is always a priority.
Phillips highlighted the need for SOF avionics enhancements including Tactical Airborne Network Integration and Mission Processor Upgrades and he challenged industry to dialog with SOCOM regarding the latest, greatest, and most cost-effective enhancements across a range of areas of interest including: RF convergence, total situational awareness, rotor speed efficiency, assured communications, robust survivability, optimal manning, high efficiency power sources, next generation cockpit, and mission simulation and training.
On the Rotary Wing sensor front, Phillips highlighted the successful completion of the Silent Knight Radar (SKR) development and announced the emerging new start planned for an Improved Rotary Wing Electro-Optical Sensor (IRES) Program. He also discussed PEO RW collaboration with the Army to address helicopter operations in Degraded Visual Environments (DVE).
Regarding the Silent Knight Radar (SKR), Phillips reported that the system has completed qualification testing for the MH-47 and about to finish it for the MH-60, thus the two aircraft are essentially moving in parallel. According to prime contractor Raytheon, the Silent Knight terrain-following/terrain avoidance (TF/TA) radar will allow special operations aircraft to fly low-altitude mission with a low probability of detection. The SKR also features new capabilities such as color weather displays and tactical data to enhance operator situational awareness.
The Silent Knight Radar capability is applicable to the range of SOF rotary wing aircraft, not only the MH-47 and MH-60, but also the (PEO Fixed Wing-managed) CV-22 and MC-130W aircraft as well. The current plan is to go into full-rate production for the SKR for PEO RW aircraft in 2019. PEO Fixed Wing officials related to DSJ the following schedule for replacing the obsolescing multi-mode radar presently installed on CV-22 aircraft with the SKR: Contract Award in March 2018; Full Rate Production Decision pending in 1QFY21; and Installation commencing in 2QFY22.
With respect to PEO RW’s nascent Improved Rotary Wing Electro-Optical Sensor (IRES) Program, Phillips described the planned launch of a program to replace the aging Forward Looking Infrared radars (FLIRs) on the SOF MH-47 and HH-60 fleets and perhaps equip the AH-6 Little Bird with a common EO/IR system as well. PEO RW is presently assessing the state of industry technology to marry the IRES requirements to the edge of current technology in order to get fielded the best system possible for SOF rotary wing assets. This PEO RW assessment, according to Phillips, will be informed by an FBO-announced Request for Information (RFI), “which will lead to some demonstration events of existing off-the-shelf FLIRs, at TRL 7 or better, to see what’s out there.” PEO RW expects a formal RFP for IRES to follow in 2019.
Phillips highlighted the ongoing cooperation between his organization and Army PEO Aviation (PM Aviation Systems) in Huntsville, which is presently pursuing a Quick Reaction Capability (QRC) DVE program that stems directly from the Degraded Visual Environment Pilotage System (DVEPS) program carried out by Sierra Nevada Corporation under contract to PEO RW. As for next steps, Phillips said “We are working with PM Aviation Systems in Huntsville to decide what they are doing beyond the HH-60 [demonstrations].” He added that his organization “is well overdue in putting this kit on [its] aircraft” and “would be building the first set of kits next year.”