Flashback to May 2002: US Army’s Rotorcraft Innovations

By Craig Bonholtzer, Suzanne Bonholtzer | June 5, 2017
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This photo originally appeared in the May 2002 issue of R&WI.

This photo originally appeared in the May 2002 issue of R&WI.

This article was originally published in the May 2002 issue of R&WI and has been edited to comply with current grammar and style guidelines. Check out our special June 2017 50th anniversary edition of the magazine, where we celebrate the past 50 years — and look ahead to the next 50 years — of rotorcraft innovations.

In the deadly Shah-e-Kot mountain range, at elevations over 8,000 feet, lies a region of jagged peaks and underground caves where, for more than 2,000 years, no attacking force, from Alexander the Great to the Soviet Union, has ever defeated Afghan fighters — until now.


March 2, an allied force went toe-to-toe in this frozen landscape with hardened, combat-proven, and often suicidal, al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. The allies were made up of U.S. Special Forces; the 101st Airborne; the 10th Mountain Division; Australian Special Forces; and Afghan troops who were mostly young and inexperienced.

The battle at Shah-e-Kot is an illustration of the Army’s efforts to transform itself into a 21st-century fighting force that’s fast, nimble, hard-hitting and ready to attack anything, anywhere, even against the most experienced combatants. To facilitate the U.S. Army’s transformation into the so-called “Objective Force” (OF), Boeing was recently awarded a major contract for developing an entirely new system of communications, weapons, sensors and intelligence capabilities.

The U.S. Dept. of Defense defines this “Objective Force” as “the Army’s future full-spectrum force: organized, manned, equipped and trained to be more strategically responsive, deployable, agile, versatile, lethal, survivable and sustainable across the entire spectrum of military operations, from major theater wars to counterterrorism and homeland security. The tactical formations of Future Combat Systems (FCS) enable the FO to see first, understand first, act first and finish decisively as the means to tactical success.”

A U.S. Army White Paper titled, “Concepts of the Objective Force,” is even more specific: “Operations will be characterized by developing situations out of contact; maneuvering to positions of advantage; engaging enemy forces beyond the range of their weapons; destroying them with precision fires; and, as required, by tactical assault at times and places of our choosing. Commanders will accomplish this by maneuvering dispersed tactical formations of Future Combat Systems units linked by web-centric C4ISR capacities for common situational dominance. With these capabilities, the Objective Force will master the transitions at all levels of operations.”

(C4ISR stands for, “command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.)

The OF will be deployable from Lockheed C-130 transports to anywhere in the world. It also will be self-sustainable for three to seven days without replenishment from external sources. The FCS will allow real-time surveillance and intelligence for engaged forward nits and command centers as far away as the Pentagon and provide instant communication to units in combat.

These advances, as magnificent as they are, will not achieve their true potential unless they are integrated into a coherent, effective, globally connected and coordinated real-time structure for rapid response. This is where the quantum leap into the 21st century by the Army, in coordination with the other armed services, is about to take place.

Recently, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), in conjunction with the Army, announced the selection of Boeing and Science Applications International Corp. as the lead systems integrator for the development of the FCS.

“The FCS is a major step in the transformation of the Army,” said Claude M. Bolton Jr., assistant secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology. “The FCS will become a network of systems incorporating manned aircraft as well as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) that will coordinate and launch mission of reconnaissance, target acquisition, air defense, assault, surveillance and battlefield command and control.”

The new Army will have the capability to put a combat-ready brigade on the ground anywhere in the world in any weather, within 96 hours; a full division within 120 hours; and five divisions within 30 days. The FCS will become part of a coordinated attack team using long-range bombers such as the Rockwell B-1, Northrop Grumman B-2 and Boeing B-52 and fighters such as the Lockheed Martin F-22. The Navy also will supply air support in almost any environmental condition.

Army Aviation Master Plan

Another advancement in the Army’s modernization will be the debut of soldiers who are fitted with advanced body armor, protection from biological pathogens and chemical weapons, self-sustaining life support systems, and the battlefield augmented reality system (BARS).

Armed with the cutting-edge technology of BARS, soldiers can communicate with each other in real time while commanders watch the action via the soldiers’ helmet-mounted cameras, UAV-mounted cameras flying overhead and satellite transmissions. Each soldier will be equipped with GPS locators that can pinpoint his location, thereby assisting pilots in avoiding friendly fire casualties.

Other advances include the “Land Warrior” concept, using laser designators for target acquisition, satellite mapping, annotated warnings for buried land mines, enemy locators, thermal and other night-vision sensors, constant uplinks for intelligence information, graphics sketches from command control, and medical inputs for wound management.

Every soldier will carry a standard combat rifle, which will have the ability to see around corners via a camera mount. If this “Land Warrior” plan goes according to schedule, all sliders will be fitted with this new equipment within six years.

Leading these forces into battle will be light infantry units, which will deploy quickly, carrying everything they need on their backs. This is a radical departure from the doctrine of heavy divisions, with their more cumbersome tanks, armored personnel carriers and heavy artillery.

While the heavy division can be lethal anywhere within a one-mile radius, light infantry units, lacking the heavy support, are effective only within one-third of a mile. But it is speed that gives these units the winning edge on today’s battlefields — in the jungles, mountains and cities — where future wars will be fought.

The helicopter will continue to provide close support. The Boeing AH-64A and later, the AH-64D Apache Longbow, will act as instant artillery and fire suppression. Both carry a lethal arsenal of weapons, including: 16 laser-guided Hellfire missiles; 76 70-milimeter rockets, or a combination of both; and a 30-milimeter M230 automatic cannon with 1,200 rounds of ammunition.

“The Apache is the most lethal heavy attack helicopter platform in the world,” said CWO Jay Ferguson, a retired instructor and maintenance test pilot with the U.S. Army and Idaho National Guard. “With almost 4,000 horsepower, the Apache can easily tackle the toughest missions.”

These Apaches have proven themselves by playing key roles in Operation Desert Strom, and more recently in Afghanistan, fighting in rugged mountains, bringing their firepower and survivability into the heat of battle.

During the opening days of Operation Anaconda, with heavy resistance by al Qaeda and Taliban forces, U.S. helicopters were forced to fly into towering mountain ranges at high altitudes. Attacking helicopters often found themselves under heavy and sustained enemy fire from many caves and bunkers that dot this rugged area.

At least five Apaches suffered heavy combat damage in Afghanistan. No crewman was killed, and no Apache crashed. All Apaches returned safely to their forward are refueling points (FARP).

As successful as the AH-64A Apache is, part of the Army’ modernization an incudes remanufacturing these aircraft into the new AH-64D Apache Longbow, manufactured by Boeing in Mesa, Arizona. The first Apache Longbow was delivered to the Army in 1997; the first fully combat-ready Apache Longbow unit became operational in November 1998 at Fort Hood, Texas.

Boeing just completed the first of two five-year contracts for 232 Apache Longbows, the last of which was delivered April 3. On that same date, Boeing also delivered helicopter No. 233, the first of another five-year contract for an additional 269 helicopters. Since the Army already owns the airframes, the cost of refurbishing each Apache is about $7 million. Turnaround time is about 12 months. Currently, Boeing is turning out about six of these converted Apaches each month.

As the world’s only fourth-generation attack helicopter, the Apache Longbow can be used for both attack and reconnaissance missions, according to Boeing, to “rapidly detect, classify, prioritize and engage stationary or moving enemy targets at standoff ranges in nearly all weather environments.”

The Apache Longbow is also very agile, capable of performing an extensive array of aerobatic maneuvers, including rolls, leeps, split-S maneuvers, and hammerhead stals. Boeing pilots have reported that the Apache Longbow performed better than the Ah-64A in aerobatic tests. In addition, the Apache Longbow fits well into the 21st-century battlefield, with its ability to communicate digitally and instantly with ground forces and other aircraft.

According to Hal Klopper, manager of communications at Boeing, “The Apache development is based on an ongoing technology road map designed to keep the Apache modernized over the years.

However, the Longbow proved to be a better aircraft in U.S. Army operational tests performed in 1995. In these tests, six AH-64D prototypes competed against standard AH-64-As. The results of those tests showed that the Apache Longbows are about 400% more lethal in hitting targets and are about 700% more survivable than the AH-64As. They also proved that the Longbow offers increased battlefield flexibility because it can use either its target acquisition designation sight or its fire control radar as a targeting sight.

In addition, the Apache Longbows are meeting a 91% readiness rate and require only 3.4 hours of maintenance man-hours per flight hour, which is one-third less than the requirement. Although he Longbow is a little heavier than the AH-64A, it still can keep up with its predecessor, at speeds of up to 170 kts.

One of a kind

Another highly anticipated addition to the modernized Army arsenal is the Boeing Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche armed reconnaissance helicopter. The Comanche program, now under restructuring, entered the full-scale development phase in 1993. Rollout of the first prototype, PT1, was May 1995. That prototype completed its first flight January 1996 in West Palm Beach, Florida. During its six years of testing, PT1 completed 387 flight hours in 318 flights.

Test pilots were impressed with the Comanche’s reliability and new technology systems, which performed well in test flights. Chuck Allen, director of the Comanche Joint Program Office, also is pleased with the prototype’s performance, saying that it “demonstrated superior flight qualities” and that it “provided precisely the information we needed to improve the design as we progress toward production.”

The first prototype was retired in February, after testing a redesign tail, a new fan dynamic pitch flight control algorithm, longer main rotor blades with anhedral tips and variable stiffness landing gear for setting down on uneven topography.

“The flight testing of the first prototype was extremely useful for this program,” said Bob Hunt, public affairs officer at the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command. “It confirmed the basic design, but also discovered several areas where there are changes planned for the next prototypes to be built.”

Flight testing reveled a “tail shake” caused by the airflow from the main rotor pylon hitting the tail. Subsequently, the pylon was redesigned an the tail was strengthened for the engineering and manufacturing design (EMD) aircraft. Now that the first prototype has finished its flight test duties, it will become a maintenance trainer.

The second Comanche prototype, PT2, already has accumulated about 103 test flight hours last year, and will probably resume testing in May of this year. The helicopter, nicknamed “The Duke” in honor of actor John Wayne, will concentrate its efforts in evaluation the Comanche Mission Equipment Package. Since its previous flights, this second prototype has been updated with new displays and a new main computer cluster. PT2 also is expected to begin testing the night vision pilotage system this summer and fall.

The restructuring of the Comanche program may lead to some changes in the overall plan. Right now, the budget includes a $3.1 billion contract with the U.S. Army to design and engineer the Comanche. The final contract is expected to be in excess of $40 billion, with a total of about 1,206 aircraft (down from the original plan for 1,213) to be manufactured. Current plans call for assembly to take place in Stratford, Connecticut.

At this time, there is some question as to how many Comanches will be produced each year once full-rate production is achieved. Present plans waver between 62 and 96 aircraft per year, but at this time, nothing is set in stone. A decision is expected during the restructuring process.

In the proposed restructuring program, nine new prototypes will be built during the development phase. Four aircraft will support flight testing and mission equipment integration, and one will be used for live-fire testing. The remaining four will be stationed at Fort Rucker, Alabama, for training and the development of techniques, procedures and tactics.

The Comanche will be used primarily as a reconnaissance aircraft, which, according to Boeing spokesman Jack Satterfield, will be equipped with the “minimal armament to complete its mission safely.” Although the Comanche will be used most often for reconnaissance missions, it is also capable of being utilized for attack and air combat missions. It is designed to carry Hellfire missiles, 2.75-inch rockets, air-to-air missiles and a 20-milimeter gun.

The Comanche has two separate internal weapons bays located on each side of the aircraft. Inside each bay, there are three weapon launch positions from which one Hellfire, two air-to-air missiles or four 2.75-inch rockets can be mounted.

Comanche’s radar signature is 200 to 600 times smaller than other helicopters, and its infrared signature is two to six times lower. There also are top-secret countermeasures and radar-resistant components that keep the Comanche an aircraft that “sees without being seen.”

The Comanche “sees” by means of second-generation, forward-looking infrared (FLIR) sensors. FLIR is used for both pilotage and target acquisition. The Comanche also is equipped with a low-light video system and nose-mounted sensors.

Other Comanche safety accessories include engine inlet and windshield deicing capabilities, and “self-healing” electronics that can reconfigure themselves if battle damage occurs.

“If some portion of the mission computer is lost, because of combat damage, then the mission computer would decide which tasks were the most important to the crew, and it would reconfigure the remaining capabilities to focus on the top-priority tasks,” Hunt said.

The Comanche is a versatile and highly agile helicopter. It can reach speeds of up to 170 kts, fly sideways and backward at 70 kts and fly at altitudes of up to 20,000 feet.

Maintenance time on the Comanche is designed to be 2.6 hours per flight hour. However, with only two prototypes built, the maintenance requirements have yet to be proven. Many of the components are similar to other Army aircraft, but according to Satterfield, “the components are compatible; the architecture is unique.”


An integral part of the Army’s new warfighting doctrine is the ability to acquire, coordinate, disseminate intelligence and implement the information into mission planning in real time, while en route to an objective. In the Afghanistan campaign, U.S. forces are seeing an unprecedented degree f coordination of information and assets among the various branches of the military. The General Atomics Predator, I-Gnat and Northrop Grumman Global Hawk are providing vital intelligence to battlefield commanders without risking human lives.

Manufactured by General Atomics in San Diego, California, the Predator cruises at more than 140 mph, has a range of more than 450 miles and can fly at altitudes up to 25,000 feet. The aircraft also can carry a payload weighing up to 450 pounds.

Although the Predator was originally unarmed, Afghanistan is believed to be the first war in which missiles were fired from a UAV, effectively turning the Predator into an unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV). Hen the Pentagon called for arming Predator, its manufacturer, General Atomics, quickly modified the aircraft to carry two Hellfire missiles.

The “Predator B” will be the next evolution of this aircraft, with top secret plans that will create a aster, higher flying UCAV with more sensors and a greater degree lethality.

The Global Hawk, built by Northrop Grumman, also has been put to the test in the skies over Afghanistan. Flying at altitudes up to 65,000 feet, this UAV has a range of 2,400 miles and can remain airborne for up to 35 hours. The sensors of the Global Hawk can scan vast regions of land, providing information in real time to command centers in the field, the Pentagon or any other linked centers.

There also is talk of adding the new foliage-penetrating technology of the “Hycas” system, which can detect vehicles or objects on the ground, even if hidden by bushes, trees or manmade camouflage.

The I-Gnat is a highly classified UAV operated by the CIA that mainly works in coordination with a Lockheed AC-130. The I-Gnat has a synthetic aperture radar called the “Lynx” that can scan through clouds, rain and darkness to provide high-resolution images of events unfolding below.

As the FCS is implemented, a new generation of unmanned aircraft will be added. Given the success of fixed-wing assets, the Army also wants to develop unmanned combat aerial rotorcraft (UCAR).

While the concept of helicopter UAVs is not new, the next-generation UCARs will be fully autonomous and can fly into battle at treetop level to draw fire, identify targets and communicate this information to more heavily armed aircraft UCARs can be linked to the Comanche and Apache while in flight for better coordination. In fiscal year 2002, the Army has requested $13 million to begin studying various systems.

One DARPA program is the Hummingbird A160: a fast, lightweight UAV that can loiter for long periods. The Hummingbird’s low disk loading and rotor tip speeds give it a range of 2,000 nm and an endurance of 24 to 48 hours. It will be used for targeting, surveillance, lethal weapons delivery and special operations.

Army modernization is a continuing process with many evolutionary advancements, such as the cutting-edge concept of the organic air vehicle (OAV). This is an all-weather targeting aircraft designed to operate on the forward edges of the battlefield with small units. OAVs will provide ground-based infantry over-the-ridge surveillance and targeting capabilities.

These advances are giving U.S. armed forces exactly what they need to stay ahead of the enemy for many battles to come.

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