Despite a naturally mutual interest, unmanned air vehicles laden with surveillance and reconnaissance sensors have not mixed well so far in close quarters with manned strike aircraft. Either the US military attempts to give each a wide berth of the other or it simply weaponises the UAV to strike its own targets rather than making each co-operate by linking them directly.
The US Army is set to challenge that thinking with a long-delayed series of experiments now due to start in the third quarter, although that timeframe is also tentative. Scheduling has been a relentless problem. However, the two-year hold-up is blamed not on lack of interest or technical maturity, but on the difficulty of finding enough aircraft to spare from the army's war effort.
The starting goal of the Hunter Killer Standoff Team (HKST) advanced concept technology demonstration (ACTD) is to hand off full control of a Northrop Grumman/Israel Aircraft Industries RQ-5A Hunter to the co-pilot/gunner of a Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbow. The gunship crew in the demonstration would also be tasked to call in a strike from a US Navy F/A-18, via a network linking the Apache to a command and control aircraft, which would be linked to the Boeing fighter.
This unprecedented manned-unmanned network is not the only potential fruit of the demonstration. The Hunter is not the intended end-state, for example. The six-year demonstration effort is also expected to produce an architecture and software core that can be updated to team any number of UAVs with the Apache.
"The concept should not care whether it is a Hunter or a [General Atomics Aeronautical Systems] Predator or not," says Raymond Wall, director of systems integration at the army's Applied Aviation Technology Directorate (AATD).
HKST is sponsored by the office of the secretary of defence, with AATD making a large contribution through the development of the associated Airborne Manned and Unmanned System Technology (AMUST) programme. AMUST has been the vehicle for developing the software to allow the Apache co-pilot to control the UAV using simple commands and to view its real-time imagery on the Longbow cockpit's multifunction display.
The aircraft are connected using a tactical common data link, providing high bandwidth to transmit the live video. The demonstration software allows the Apache gunner to operate the Hunter's sensor package as if the camera was on board his own aircraft, says Al Wynne, Boeing's AH-64D programme manager.
The UAV could be directed to designate a moving target using an on-board laser spot tracker, allowing the Apache or the F/A-18 to launch weapons from stand-off range. The Hunter would remain over the target until the Apache crew had confirmed the results of the weapon strike.
The demonstration has been moved from South Korea to Fort Hood, Texas. Wynne adds that staging the event in Iraq was being considered in an effort to guarantee the availability of the aircraft. However, Wall says that option has been dropped and the experiment will be in Texas even if it means another delay.
A strong showing in the live experiment will be critical for the programme's future. Notionally, the networking technology and software package has been identified for insertion in the third lot of AH-64D Block III production in 2012, but that is an administrative goal for now beyond the Pentagon's budget planning.
"The army hasn't committed to doing anything except for the demonstration," says Wynne.
STEPHEN TRIMBLE/WASHINGTON DC
Source: Flight International