The US Army has demonstrated a Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk launching an Area-I ALTIUS unmanned air vehicle (UAV) from the low altitude of 100ft above the ground.
The ALTIUS, which stands for Air-Launched, Tube-Integrated Unmanned System, was launched while the helicopter was in forward flight during a 4 March test at the Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona.
Launching a UAV from a forward-moving, low-flying helicopter can be tricky, as it can be swatted away by the host platform’s main rotor downwash. The small vehicle also has little time to deploy its wing and start flying under its own power.
By showing that a UAV can be launched from a helicopter flying at low level, the US Army says it is one step closer to developing the aircraft and weapons needed to penetrate and destroy the advanced air defences of potential adversaries such as China and Russia.
The service wants ALTIUS to serve as an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) UAV to help spot enemy air defences, especially those that are optimised for shooting down lower-altitude aircraft. It needs this capability to be able to fly at low altitudes so that its scouting helicopters can also remain close to the ground, hidden behind hills or buildings, out of the way of enemy detection and fire.
Targets spotted by the ALTIUS are to be destroyed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems’ Spike non line-of-sight (NLOS) missile. The Israeli company’s weapon has a 17.3nm (32km) range: far longer than that of the US service’s current Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire, which is limited to 4.3nm. That extended range is to help keep US Army helicopters beyond the reach of enemy anti-aircraft weapons.
ALTIUS and Spike NLOS are stopgap solutions that the service plans to buy and field soon so it can be ready for battles with near peer adversaries. Small numbers of the Spike NLOS are to be fielded by late 2022 or early 2023, and both systems are to be in hand by 2025.
The service declines to say how many Spike NLOS missiles are to be ordered.
“It’s a quantity enough to get after our global ‘we fight tonight’ challenges,” says Colonel Matthew Isaacson, Future Vertical Lift cross functional team chief of operations.
By 2028, when the army’s next-generation scouting helicopter, the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA), is to be deployed, the service wants tailor-made systems.
It wants a successor - a so-called Air Launched Effect (ALE) - to the ALTIUS and Spike, with what it calls the Long-Range Precision Munition (LRPM). The army expects to finish drafting requirements for both next-generation systems by the end of this year, says Isaacson.
HIDE AND SEEK
While the US Army has been busy fighting wars in the Middle East, as well as the global war on terrorism, over the past 19 years, China and Russia have invested heavily in sophisticated networks of surface-to-air missiles intended to shoot down US combat aircraft.
To counter these missile systems, the army is contracting US industry to develop helicopters, weapons, UAVs and battlefield networks that would allow it to attack and defeat an adversary’s air defences before the opposing force is able to mount a strong defence. In particular, the service aims to go after lower-altitude surface-to-air missile batteries and anti-aircraft guns, leaving higher-altitude threats to the US Air Force.
“The air force brings the capability to open up higher airspace, but not near-terrain-flying altitude airspace,” says Isaacson. He says not all threats can be identified and attacked from high altitudes, meaning helicopters are needed.
The service’s in-development FARA rotorcraft, with its cruise speed of at least 180kt (333km/h), is to serve as the first thrust of the spear in a penetration mission. ALE and LRPM are to sharpen the helicopter’s lethality by allowing it to spot threats from a safe distance and strike targets.
The concept is similar to how the army currently uses the Boeing AH-64E attack helicopter and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-1C Gray Eagle UAV to spot and attack targets. The detect, identify, locate and report mission of scouting is unchanged.
However, the army envisages multiple ALEs speeding up the process by working together in groups and automating target acquisition. “Artificial intelligence-enabled target recognition allows humans to reduce their workload ,” says Isaacson. “Having multiple ALEs in flight also allows us to extend the range [of UAVs] through line-of-sight communications, where one can transmit data to another. We’ve demonstrated that.”
The ALEs would not only represent an ISR capabilty, however. They are to be modular, allowing soldiers the ability to swap in and out payloads, as well as mission software.
A UAV with an electronic warfare payload could be used to disrupt enemy command, control and communications systems. “[It] provides some kind of chaos to the enemy or inhibits their ability to define where we’re at,” says Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Freude, FARA integration lead and G-3 plans and requirements officer.
The ALEs could also serve as decoys to tempt enemies into turning on their radar systems and to draw out fire. “They give their positions away when they engage those decoys,” says Freude.
Lastly, ALEs could serve as loitering munitions. “As targets are identified you can also prosecute the targets,” says Freude.
The army wants to overwhelm an adversary’s decision making ability, says Isaacson, noting: “We have to present multiple dilemmas to our near peer adversaries.”
Rafael’s Spike started as an anti-tank missile inspired by Israel’s experience in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when it was simultaneously invaded by Egypt and Syria in a surprise massed tank attack. In response, Israel developed the Spike in the 1980s as a weapon that could attack the armoured reserves of an invading army, thus slowing the adversary’s momentum.
The missile has evolved over the years to include anti-ship and anti-personnel warheads. The wider Spike family includes shoulder- and vehicle-launched variants, and the maximum range of the missile has increased from 6.4nm to 17.3nm.
For business with the US government, Lockheed serves as the missile’s prime contractor. Rafael says it is in discussions to set up US-based manufacturing of the weapon.
In addition to its long range, the Spike has several further advantages over other air-launched missiles, its manufacturer says.
After receiving a target’s co-ordinates, the missile is steered to its destination using a combination of inertial navigation and an electro-optical/infrared camera.
“We don’t use GPS navigation. That’s a big advantage of the missile,” says Gal Papier, director of business development for the precise tactical weapon systems directorate at Rafael. “It’s actually immune to a GPS-denied environment.”
In recent years, China and Russia have focused on developing GPS jamming and spoofing capabilities to disrupt the USA’s ability to conduct GPS-guided precision strikes. The two countries have also invested in anti-satellite missiles.
For the last portion of the Spike’s trajectory to a target, a helicopter weapons officer steers the missile using its cameras. “The missile is transmitting the video of the missile seeker in real time using an encrypted data link to the operator,” says Papier. “The gunner feels like he’s riding on the missile.”
Though a loitering munition could do many of the same missions as the Spike NLOS, or the forthcoming LRPM, long-range missiles are favoured against high-value targets because of their speed, says the US Army.
In August 2019, the service test-fired five Spike missiles from an AH-64E at the Yuma Proving Grounds. The missiles hit five out of five targets. The army says the demonstration gives it the confidence to move ahead with acquisition of the weapon.
In addition to the Apache, the UH-60, Boeing CH-47 Chinook and army UAVs can carry and launch ALEs and LRPMs, says Isaacson.
Looking beyond Spike and ALTIUS, the army declines to disclose exactly what it wants for its next generation of systems. Nonetheless, the service says it expects to be working within a constrained budget. Goals are to be achievable and practical, it says.
“We’re not talking about anything that’s boutique or expensive, or unaffordable. We know that the army aviation portfolio is not one that grows over time,” says Isaacson. “We’re looking at ways to integrate available affordable technology.”
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