Meeting the Future Communications Needs of the UH-60M Black Hawk Helicopter

0
1096
A Vermont Army National Guard HH-60M Black Hawk from the 224th Aviation Regiment (Air Ambulance), transports Vermont state representatives from Fort Drum, NY, to South Burlington, VT. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Sarah Mattison)

There are few military aircraft as iconic and recognizable as the Black Hawk helicopter. That’s most likely a result of being featured in practically every modern war and military film in recent memory. But it’s also a testament to the aircraft’s durability – having been part of the enduring fleet for the better part of four decades.

The Black Hawk – or the UH-60M as it’s officially called – has been the medium-lift helicopter for the U.S. and its coalition allies for several different types of missions and operations since its development in the late 1970s. However, the aircraft that is in use today is a much more digital, modernized, and capable aircraft than the one that was first introduced in 1979.

To empower some of these new capabilities, the U.S. Army recently announced that a new V/UHF two-channel radio system would be integrated into the UH-60M to replace its legacy and obsolete radios. This new radio system is expected to improve the performance of the aircraft, reduce costs, and meet some of the aircraft’s advanced connectivity requirements moving forward.

To learn more about the UH-60M, why it’s been such an integral part of U.S. military operations for more than 40 years, and how this new radio system is going to prepare the Black Hawk for enduring use into the future, we sat down with Joseph Thomas, a Senior Manager of Business Development for Collins Aerospace.

The Modern Battlespace (TMB): What is the UH-60M aircraft? What has made this aircraft such an important and enduring part of the military’s operations for decades? What different types of missions is the UH-60M aircraft used for?

Joseph Thomas: Since the late 1970s, the Sikorski UH-60 family has remained one of the most iconic vehicles or aircraft used by the U.S. military. What we colloquially call the Black Hawk Helicopter has been an enduring image and symbol of our country’s military power for the better part of four decades.

And there are reasons why this aircraft has been in use and relied upon for so long. The UH-60M aircraft is among the most capable, effective, and powerful military aircraft available to the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). It is incredibly survivable, easily maintainable, and incredibly adaptable to a number of important military missions.

Today, the Sikorski UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter is leveraged for air assault, MEDEVAC, search and rescue, command and control, and VIP transport missions. It has seen use in both combat and peacetime. The UH-60 family of aircraft is in use by a number of global militaries – including many of America’s coalition partners and allies – and has been involved in combat missions on multiple continents.

The UH-60M remains the go-to aircraft for the U.S. DoD when the mission requires a medium-lift helicopter.

TMB: What are the communications requirements for the UH-60M? How are those requirements different today, and how are they evolving into the future?

Joseph Thomas: It’s safe to say that the Black Hawk helicopter that was developed in the 1970s is not the same Black Hawk helicopter being fielded by the U.S. military today. The platform is continuously being upgraded and outfitted with the latest technologies, avionics, and capabilities the military is developing for its combat aircraft.

“…the UH-60M will effectively be leveraging the exact same radio as Army personnel on the ground. This closes the gap of interoperability between the ground and air domains and gives the warfighter in both domains identical capability at both points of the communication link.” – Joseph Thomas

For example, the modern UH-60M Black Hawk features integrated laser and missile detection systems. It features a fully digital cockpit and an enhanced GPS with a moving map display. And it’s also being outfitted with many of the advanced sensors that will become commonplace as the military increasingly leverages vehicle data to perform proactive and preventative maintenance. In fact, the modern UH-60M even features an Integrated Vehicle Health Management System (IVHMS) that increases the access to and availability of aircraft health and maintenance data.

With these ever-evolving capabilities, the Black Hawk – now more than ever before – must be able to communicate in a multi-domain, multi-vehicle fight. It needs the ability to access real-time C4ISR data and intelligence to inform its mission. It needs to be able to communicate both air-to-air and air-to-ground. Finally, as the need to get real-time data to and from the aircraft increases – including vehicle health data – the UH-60M’s requirement to communicate across various waveforms and frequency bands increases, as well.

TMB: The DoD recently announced that Collins Aerospace’s Manpack radios would be integrated into the UH-60M aircraft. What do these radios do?

Joseph Thomas: The radio you’re referring to is the Collins Aerospace TruNet™ AN/PRC-162(V)1. This is a two-channel networked communications ground radio with a number of features that make it an important tool for the mounted warfighter.

The TruNet™ AN/PRC-162(V)1 is capable of communications across multiple narrowband and wideband networking waveforms, including MUOS, WREN, SATURN, and SINCGARS. It enables ad-hoc, high-speed mobile networked communications, point-to-point data, voice, next-generation SATCOM, and the latest in-theater IP-based waveform communications.

However, what’s most exciting about integrating this particular radio into the UH-60M is the interoperability with both mounted and dismounted warfighters on the ground.

“There are a number of enduring and future aircraft that the radio could conceivably integrate with. In fact, we are currently working with the Army to demonstrate how [it] could deliver similar SWaP savings in other aircraft…” – Joseph Thomas

Since the TruNet™ AN/PRC-162(V)1 was originally built as a tactical ground radio, the UH-60M will effectively be leveraging the exact same radio as Army personnel on the ground. This closes the gap of interoperability between the ground and air domains and gives the warfighter in both domains identical capability at both points of the communication link.

TMB: Why was the TruNet™ AN/PRC-162(V)1 selected for the UH-60M aircraft? Was it a result of the capabilities? Performance and reliability? Cost?

Joseph Thomas: The answer is, “All of the above.” The interoperability benefit that we discussed also comes with benefits to aircraft weight and performance. The TruNet™ AN/PRC-162(V)1 also delivers cost savings.

By reducing the sheer number and amount of components needed for communications, the TruNet™ AN/PRC-162(V)1 effectively delivers a weight savings of 11 pounds to the UH-60M Black Hawk. Weight is an essential metric in helicopters, as operating over the recommended weight can impact structural integrity and performance. That weight savings mean that other components and capabilities can be integrated into the UH-60M as future needs dictate or require.

That same reduction in components – without sacrificing capabilities – is also helping to reduce cost. Through advanced, integrated capabilities, Collins was able to demonstrate more than $40M in cost avoidance through this design. Couple that cost savings with the savings that will result from reduced fuel consumption thanks to the vehicle’s lower weight, and the military is saving a significant amount of money by integrating the TruNet™ AN/PRC-162(V)1 into the UH-60M Black Hawk.

TMB: Interoperability and open systems are two of the largest trends that we’re seeing in military comms and IT acquisitions. Is the TruNet™ AN/PRC-162(V)1 built with open standards in mind? Can they easily integrate and interoperate with other military communications systems?

Joseph Thomas: Yes. The radio is a true Software Design Radio (SDR). It has been built to the open standards mandated by the Army as part of the HMS contract. We continue to work with the Army to routinely update the software for new capabilities, rapidly changing threats and evolving security requirements.

“Today, the Sikorski UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter is leveraged for air assault, MEDEVAC, search and rescue, command and control, and VIP transport missions. It has seen use in both combat and peacetime.” – Joseph Thomas

However, because of the software-defined nature of the radio, all of these updates are capable of being done with software updates only.

TMB: Is the TruNet™ AN/PRC-162(V)1 only capable of working with the UH-60M? What other platforms could these manpack radios integrate with?

Joseph Thomas: There are a number of enduring and future aircraft that the radio could conceivably integrate with. In fact, we are currently working with the Army to demonstrate how the TruNet™ AN/PRC-162(V)1 could deliver similar size, weight, and power (SWaP) savings in other aircraft, such as the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA), the Boeing CH-47 Chinook aircraft, the Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, and even the General Atomics MQ-1C Gray Eagle unmanned aerial system (UAS).

The Army is in the process of making platform integration decisions for the enduring fleet and FLRAA. We believe that the TruNet™ AN/PRC-162(V)1 is the best choice for these platforms because of its mix of capabilities, its ability to integrate seamlessly, and deliver significant overall system weight and cost avoidance to the military.

To learn more about the TruNet™ AN/PRC-162(V)1 for mounted military missions, click PLAY on the video below: