The British Army is currently in the process of integrating the Apache AH Mk1 (AH) into the Army Air Corps. The AH Mk1 is a heavily armed helicopter, capable of accommodating a combat load of 8 Hellfire missiles, 38 CRV 7 rockets, 1200 rounds of 30mm cannon shells, 1400 litres of fuel and 72 chaff and flares.
The AH programme has been hampered by substantial delays, cost over-runs in the region of £70 million, engineering problems and software failures with the aircraft’s flight simulator. Despite these serious and expensive setbacks, the AH Mk1 does signify a step towards the UK realisation of ‘Network Enhanced’ armed forces.
It was initially thought that the British Army intended to acquire 91 Apache A-model aircraft or an equivalent. However the Longbow equipped D-model was preferred as it possesses a powerful target acquisition radar and has a greater potential to be fully ‘network centric’ due to its modern digital systems. The proposed UK fleet numbers were reduced to 67 to make the procurement of the D-model stay with the allocated budget.
The Longbow millimetric wave radar is mounted on the aircraft’s main rotor mast and forms part of the Longbow fire and forget anti-armour system. The radar is capable of 360-degree operations to a range of 8 km and can detect up to 1023 targets, display 256 and offer 16 as priority engagements for engagement. In addition to Longbow the AH Mk1 also fields a comprehensive sensor package and combines Target Acquisition Designation Sights (TADS) Pilot Night Vision Sensor (PNVS) Direct Viewing Optics (DVO) Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) and Day-Time Television (DTV). When all these sensor are combined, the AH Mk1 becomes a heavily armed Intelligence Surveillance Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) platform.
As militaries are becoming involved in an increasing number of expeditionary operations, conducted by combined forces, a real need exists to co-ordinate communications and data between attack helicopters, ground units, fast jets and ISTAR assets. This level of co-ordination is seen as key to improve ‘sensor-to-shooter’ links, cut response times and avoid fraticide. The ability to distribute ISTAR information between platforms and formations is essential to the future of modern combat operations. However it is a function the AH Mk1 has trouble performing.
Despite its digital suite and sensor systems the AH Mk1s ability to share the ISTAR information it has correlated, is restricted. The capability to download information away from the AH MK1 fleet simply did not exist. Aircraft could communicate data with each other, in a similar fashion that the US OH-58 Kiowa and AH-64 A, but had no capability to share real time information with either ground stations, fast jets or command and control (C2) assets. In addition to the inability to share target data, the AH Mk1 cannot initially transmit their positions in real time, a facility that would reduce the risk of fratricide when conducting multi-national, combined operations.
To enable AH Mk1 to operate and contribute target data and real time flight tracking to other assets, General Dynamics and Innovative Concepts Inc are developing an Improved Mission Planning Station (IMPS). This system consists of a Symetrics Industries new IDM-501 version of the Improved Data Modem (IDM), that allows data to be passed via the AH Mk1 radios. The IDM can pass both data and video in almost real time between the AH Mk1 and the Mission Planning Station (MPS). The transfer of real-time tracking data from an AH Mk1 into a link 16 situational awareness network, has been achieved. The MPS, IDM and an UK/PRC 346 TacGA V/UHF ground-air radio were used for flight tracking, and text free message exchange between the aircraft and the ground station, thus allowing TACFIRE target data information from the Longbow to be shown on the MPS.
The use of radios to transfer data has serious consequences on the AH Mk1’s mission footprint. The aircraft is can operate out to a variety of ranges depending on fuel and ammunition combinations, but HF radios have a restricted range when they are used to transfer data, at distances beyond line-of-sight (LOS).
To overcome this problem the UK MOD are looking at integrating Apache with airborne relay platforms, such as communications relay unmanned aerial vehicles (CRUAV), satellites and Airborne Stand-Off Radar (ASTOR). Project Extendor, the UK communications relay programme has been developed to support AH Mk1 operations. Extendor uses a number of assets including CRUAV to support the command and control of AH Mk1. Potentially a CRUAV will be in a high orbit and relay data information from a forward air controller (FAC) or ground station to an AH Mk1 or IDM equipped fast jet. Eventually the Extendor project wishes to be able to pass situational awareness information, via link 16 to a number of IDM equipped platforms
One of the major criticisms of the AH Mk1 is its inability to communicate via the new Bowman system. Bowman is intrinsic to the UK digitisation process, as it will provide a secure voice and data communications system, for UK forces. The AH MK1 is to be fitted with radios to enable secure voice communications, but the integration of the AH Mk1 mission systems and the Bowman data system does not currently exist. As such the AH Mk1 is unable to fully operate with Bowman equipped formations.
Under the Apache Bowman Connectivity (ABC) proposal Aerosystems International have been contracted to develop a solution known as the Bowman Apache Mission Planning System (BAMPS). It is intended that BAMPS will enable AH Mk1 to exchange data messages with the Bowman network using IDM and a Bowman Network Access Unit (BNAU). Initially the BNAU will perform a bridging function between the AH Mk1 ARC-201D radio to secure Bowman VHF radios. Also it is hoped that the BNAUs will be able to translate the AH Mk1 Air Force Application Program Development (AFAPD) protocol traffic into the Bowman network.
The realisation of a ‘network enabled’ system is still been sought by the UK armed forces. AH Mk1 is a move in the right direction, and the ongoing upgrades are enabling the platform to realise its potential as an armed ISTAR asset. The use of IDM in the AH Mk1 and other UK air platforms will give a greater ability to share ISTAR information and act on target data in a timely, effective and accurate manner. Also it will allow for real time re-tasking, mission changes and the transfer of battle- field information from aircraft into the ISTAR system.
Unfortunately the realisation of these facilities has not arrived in the UK arsenal, in a timely fashion. In fact the need to undertake such fundamental upgrades, that should have been installed in the aircraft in the acquisition and production phase, hint that the platform may not realise its full potential for some years to come.