NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Army News Service, April 3, 2012) -- The U.S. Army's AH-64 Apache Block III next-generation attack helicopter is finishing up its Initial Operational Test and Evaluation at Fort Irwin, Calif., and should be ready to deploy with Soldiers sometime next year, officials said April 2 at the Army Aviation Association of America's 2012 Professional Forum and Exposition.
The nitial Operational Test and Evaluation, known as IOT&E, is a series of combat-like assessments and evaluations placing the aircraft in operationally relevant scenarios as a way to prepare the platform for full-rate production, said Col. Shane Openshaw, project manager, Apache Attack Helicopters.
Although formal results of the Block III Apache's IOT&E are still in the process of being determined, preliminary observations and early indications suggest the high-tech aircraft is performing extremely well, Openshaw said. The force-on-force portion of the IOT&E has been completed and some live-fire exercises remain in coming days, he added.
So far, the Army has already taken delivery of 10 of the Boeing-built AH 64 Apache Block III aircraft, a helicopter engineered to bring the Apache fleet improved, next-generation range, performance, maneuverability and electronics. Total planned procurement for the Apache Block III is 690 aircraft.
The Block III Apache is being engineered such that an advanced, high-tech aircraft at the weight of the D model can have the power, performance and landing abilities of an original A model Apache. The current D-model Longbow Apache is heavier than the original A-model; the heavier Apache carries significantly improved targeting and sensing capabilities but lacks the transmission-to-power ratio and hard-landing ability of the initial A model.
"I had the opportunity to fly a Block III Apache a week ago and I will tell you the performance of the aircraft is tremendous," Openshaw said. "It's fast, strong and capable. We have also made improvements to the target acquisition platform. The backbone of the aircraft is an open-system architecture with improved mission command and interoperability."
Engineering the aircraft with an open-system architecture refers to efforts to design the electronics such that they have a "plug-and-play" capability and can easily integrate with current state-of-the-art and emerging next generation technologies, officials said.
The idea is to maximize interoperability by developing electronics and computing technologies according to a set of established technical standards through a "system-of-systems" type of approach so that new systems, sensors, applications, electronics, avionics and other technologies such as software-programmable radio can successfully inter-operate and work effectively with one another, they explained.
Built in this fashion, the Apache Block IIIs' avionics and mission equipment will be able to perform sophisticated "networking" and on-board computing functions and more easily accommodate valuable emerging capabilities, they said.
The Block III Apache is also engineered with what's called Level 4 Manned-Unmanned Teaming, or MUM capability, a technology wherein Apache pilots can not only view video feeds from nearby UAS systems scanning surrounding terrain, but can also control the UAS' sensor payload and flight path as well, Openshaw said.
In fact, the Gray Eagle UAS participated in the Manned Unmanned Teaming exercises during the Apache Block III IOT&E at Fort Irwin.
Called the UTA, or UAS Tactical Common Data Link Assembly, the new technology enhances pilots' ability to view and control nearby UAV assets with a mind to intelligence, targeting information and overall situational awareness. Army engineers have developed the software that equips the aircraft with this next-generation capability.
The advent of this technology is leading the Army to establish new tactics, techniques and procedures designed to maximize the value of the emerging technological capability, said Col. John Lynch, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command capability manager.
"For example, with the Block III Apache you might have a UAS that's overhead looking down into urban canyons; with Manned-Unmanned Teaming you have the ability to designate targets and you can see what is in the area where you are going to operate," Lynch said.
The Block III Apache will also bring improved endurance and payload capabilities to the attack helicopter platform; the Block III aircraft will be able to transport a larger amount of ammunition and fuel in what is described as "high-hot" conditions at altitudes of 6,000 feet and temperatures at or above 95 degrees Fahrenheit.
"With Block III you will be able to fly longer with more ammunition and a full tank of gas on missions because the aircraft has an improved drive train, composite rotor blades and increased performance capabilities," Lynch added.
Some of the Block III aircraft will be re-manufactured Block II D-model Apaches and, when full-rate production starts, some of the aircraft will be constructed with entirely new airframes, Openshaw explained.
Throughout its decades-long existence, the Apache platform has consistently upgraded and sustained its capability in order to incrementally incorporate new technologies as they emerge and bring the latest in capability to Soldiers. In fact, all but 51 of the 721 Apache aircraft in the Army inventory began as the initial or first variant, called A-model Apaches; many of these original aircraft were then subsequently remanufactured to become improved D-model Longbow Apaches engineered with Fire Control Radar and improved electronics.
Today, only eight A-model Apaches remain in the fleet, Openshaw said.
Also, Apache attack helicopters will soon be flying with a prototype enemy fire detection system called Ground Fire Acquisition System, or GFAS, a suite of sensors and cameras able to locate the source, location and distance of incoming hostile fire, Army officials said.
Prototypes of the GFAS systems, which will soon undergo a "user evaluation" in theater, are built on to Apache aircraft; they contain camera sensors on each wingtip engineered to detect the signature and muzzle flash of nearby enemy small arms fire. The system is engineered with the ability to distinguish small arms fire from larger guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
The cameras and infrared sensors on the aircraft detect the muzzle flash from ground fire and move the information through an Aircraft Gateway Processor into the cockpit so pilots will see an icon on their display screen; GFAS is integrated with Blue Force Tracking technology, digital map
display screens which show the locations of nearby forces and surrounding terrain.
Apache program officials praised the performance of the attack helicopter platform in theater, calling it the world's most lethal, capable attack helicopter.
"Most of the air assaults we conducted relied upon the Apache platform. Two things you can't talk about enough are the pilots that fly them and the guys inside the cockpit that get the mission done. They are dedicated to supporting the guys on the ground," said Lt. Col. Christopher Downey, Task Force Six Shooters, who spent time with Apache attack helicopter units assigned to RC East, Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008.
(Kris Osborn writes for the