The US Army has completed initial operational testing of Boeing's latest Block III AH-64D helicopter gunship, but technology is continuing to add new capabilities to the venerable type.
"They just competed the IOT&E [initial operational test and evaluation] down at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin [California]," says Col Shane Openshaw, the service's Apache project manager. "Although the test results are not out yet, I will tell you that the performance during the test has been outstanding."
In addition to mechanical enhancements such as new, more powerful engines, a better transmission and new composite rotor-blades, the Block III has revamped avionics that make the new variant a stellar performer. Openshaw says that new open architecture computer hardware will allow the aircraft to continue to add new capabilities in the future.
"It's not what we advertised, it significantly more," Openshaw says.
© US Army
One of those new capabilities is the ability to direct unmanned aircraft such as the General Atomics MQ-1C Gray Eagle via a Ku-band data-link. The Block III can be equipped with a Lockheed Martin-built unmanned aerial system data-link assembly (UTA) that fits in a mast-mounted pod resembling the Longbow radar. The pod also shares many components and interfaces with the radar.
Any Block III can accept either radar or UTA - or neither, if the commander so chooses, according to Lt Col Dan Bailey, the army's Block III product manager.
The system allows Block III pilots to control the sensors and weapons on a Gray Eagle or direct its path. Eventually pilots will be able to control an AAI RQ-7 Shadow UAV, once it is upgraded to use the Ku-band data-link, Bailey adds.
The USA is also looking at upgrading the UTA to use more types of waveforms to communicate with other types of unmanned aircraft.
Meanwhile, the army is testing other new hardware on the Apache. On display at the Army Aviation Association of America Annual Professional Forum was a Block II AH-64 featuring a new prototype system to detect and precisely locate ground fire. But Openshaw says that the array of cameras might have additional applications that could potentially increase the crew's situational awareness. It is only a prototype, however, and there is no current plan to field it, he says.