With more than 350 AH-64E Apaches delivered and potential customers showing interest, the latest version of Boeing’s attack helicopter looks set to be the most successful so far in terms of sales.
The airframer is currently producing around 70 Apaches each year at its Mesa, Arizona, plant. But the company is targeting a significant ramp-up in activity, with plans to produce as many as 100 aircraft a year starting around 2021, says Steve Wade, vice president for Boeing’s attack helicopter programs and site executive at its Mesa facility.
“This will be an historically high build rate,” says Wade, and it is being driven by customer requests for deliveries during the 2021-22 time period.
U.S. Army is planning to field AH-64E v6 software upgrade in the coming months
Future Apache cockpit could eliminate IHADSS helmet mounted sight system
Of the AH-64’s 16 customers, the vast majority appear set to renew their aircraft to the AH-64E standard if they have not already done so, and Boeing says as many as 10 more nations may soon invest in the aircraft.
And Boeing is doing that as well. While currently completing development of the aircraft’s v6 software load, which was being tested by the U.S. Army during the spring to reach front-line units later this year, it is also doing self-funded development work for a notional future Apache to keep it relevant into the 2050s or 2060s.
The development of v6 is no small task. It is considered to be the software load that will bring many of the AH-64E’s much-promised capabilities to the front line. This includes the full capability offered by the L3 Technologies Manned-Unmanned Teaming-Extended, or MUMT-X, system. It replaces the Unmanned Aerial Systems Tactical Common Data Link Assembly, a system largely abandoned due to high cost and incompatibility. The MUMT-X system provides greater compatibility with a range of unmanned aircraft systems and an increased level of control.
The new software also delivers new littoral modes for the Longbow fire-control radar, a recognition that the Apache may increasingly find itself operating over water in the future.
Other changes include a cognitive decision-aiding system to support targeting and integration of the Soldier Radio Waveform voice and data capability into the Link 16 data link.
The v6 software load is also intended to enable the first common configuration for all domestic and international AH-64Es, beginning with the UK WAH-64D Apaches that are to be upgraded to the E standard.
Beyond this, Boeing is developing a road map to improve the Apache’s performance, sensor acuity, reliability and maintainability. The Block III Apache, which eventually became the AH-64E, primarily addressed performance and endurance shortfalls. While the AH-64D had benefited from extensive insertion of new technology, the airframe had become weighed down without additional power, resulting in a slower aircraft than the earlier AH-64A.
The U.S. Army is recieving AH-64Es in growing numbers and has deployed them overseas. Credit: Sgt. Daniel Johnson/U.S. Army
By installing the more powerful 2,000-shp General Electric T700-701D turboshaft, that performance deficit between the A and D models has been addressed. Future powerplants, such as the Army’s 3,000-shp Improved Turbine Engine, designed to slot into the aircraft, will add further improvements in speed and range, says Wade.
He also notes that the Army’s studies into improving operations in degraded visual environments (DVE), associated with allowing helicopters to land and maneuver in brownout or whiteout conditions, could be broadened out so that the ability to operate in DVE conditions could give Army aviators an advantage in tactical situations.
Perhaps one of the biggest improvements under study is in the cockpit. In the Apache, the rear and front cockpits are different. In the U.S. Army version, the pilot sits in the rear seat and the gunner in the front. The front cockpit is dominated by the TADS electronic display and control, which protrudes from the instrument panel. This device features half of a gamepad controller on each side and presents data from the Modernized Target Acquisition and Designation Sight (M-TADS) system. Boeing is exploring doing away with the different cockpits and standardizing them by installing high-resolution wide-area displays, taking cues from the fast-jet world.
Several other attack helicopters have taken a similar approach. Both cockpits in Bell’s AH-1Z have the same layout. In the company’s simulation suite, engineers have been exploring use of the 11 X 19-in. display from the F-35, an 8 X 20-in. display and a pair of 8 X 12-in. displays, and listening to Apache flight crews. The displays are capable of displaying imagery and flight data at a higher resolution than the current multifunction displays.
They are also lighter and cheaper to replace in the event of damage, and could speed up the training process by reducing the need to remember the numerous bevel key button-pushes required to access some aircraft systems. Aircraft data is presented via a series of portals that can be accessed through touch-screen control, and sensors can be manipulated through smartphone-like finger strokes. Engineers say that that the high-resolution screens will likely then drive enhancements in the aircraft’s sensor systems in order to realize the full benefit of the new cockpit layout.
Another significant change could be eliminating the Integrated Helmet and Display Sighting System (IHADSS), the helmet-mounted reticule that led to the myth that Apache pilots can move one eye independently of the other. IHADSS could be replaced with a single helmet-mounted display similar to that on the F-35, providing a much wider field of view than the IHADSS. Engineers are also studying voice recognition as a means of activating and accessing some aircraft systems.
Boeing has also been exploring changes to the flight controls based on the work done on the CH-47 Chinook’s Active Parallel Actuator Subsystem (APAS), a “fly-by-wire light” system that uses BAE’s active inceptors to provide tactical feedback, in terms of force gradients and soft stops, and that alerts the pilot when the aircraft is approaching any of several operating limits. More importantly, this allows the aircraft to be operated closer to those thresholds, increasing payload and engine torque limits, potentially leading to significant improvements in performance.
Boeing engineers tell Aviation Week that around 60% of the work on an Apache APAS study has been completed. The Army is also mulling new armament options, including directed-energy weapons. Army trials last summer saw an Apache fly with a Raytheon-developed solid-state laser weapon in a pod fitted to one of the stub wings.
Other potential upgrades include adding a propulsor and compounding wing to improve performance.