With all eyes on the US SOCOM's war-winning capabilities, the Pentagon wants a hike in special forces funding to deal with emerging threats

Historically, the term special forces has conjured up images of small bands of elite soldiers operating covertly behind enemy lines, rarely talked about and even more rarely seen. Recent operations in Afghanistan and now Iraq have turned the public spotlight on the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM), which with a strength of nearly 50,000 airmen, sailors and soldiers is comparable to a mid-size European army. SOCOM enjoys considerable autonomy on and off the battlefield and in terms of capability is the envy of even the US regular military.

This is no better exemplified perhaps than by the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), tasked with providing aviation support to the US Army's Special Operations Forces (SOF). The 160th SOAR can muster 150 helicopters, more than most air forces and, as demonstrated in the exacting environment of Afghanistan, has the ability to operate into and out of battlefields beyond the reach of most rank-and-file rotorcraft. The unique war-winning capabilities that SOCOM brings to the fight has not gone unnoticed by the US Department of Defense (DoD), which is asking for a 50% hike in special forces funding next year

SOF spending is expected to jump from $3 billion this year to just over $4.5 billion in fiscal year 2004, of which nearly $2 billion - roughly twice this year's amount - will go on new equipment. The SOF budget does not include $2.2 billion spent on special forces pay, which is administered by the regular military, but even when this is factored in, SOCOM will still only account for 1.8% of the DoD's total budget next year.

SOCOM commander Gen Charles Holland, in recent budget testimony to the US Congress House Armed Services Committee, explained that the money was needed on two fronts - funding the continuing war on terrorism, and modernising and expanding special forces to meet emerging threats. This will include providing SOCOM with a more robust global command, control and communications capability, enabling it be elevated from a "supporting" to a "supported" command. The new war against Baghdad, in which the SOF is heavily engaged in western Iraq, is likely to result in the injection of even more funding this year in the form of supplemental money.

When it comes to buying new equipment, SOCOM has the unique advantage of having its own separate authority to order, as well as research and develop, new weapons independent of the DoD's time-consuming and cumbersome procurement system. "It is a powerful tool that allows us to quickly meet the soldier, sailor or airman's equipment needs. Our fundamental acquisition strategy is to rapidly field the 80% solution, while working with the war fighters and industry to continue to address the last 20%," says Holland.

The FY2004 budget includes $262 million to convert four more Lockheed Martin C-130Hs into AC-130U gunships, as well as reconfiguring another 10 transports into MC-130H Combat Talon IIs and accelerating aerial refuelling modifications of US Air Force SOF's existing MC-130H support aircraft. For the 160th SOAR, the challenge is modernising its helicopter fleet while facing "low density/high demand" pressure in places such as Afghanistan and the Philippines - where the regiment has lost two Boeing MH-47Es - and now Iraq.

Rebuild and upgrade

"Low density/high demand for those that don't speak Pentagonese simply means we need them and don't have enough of them," says Dov Zakheim, DoD comptroller. Original plans had been for 160th SOAR to rebuild and upgrade its 23 surviving MH-47Es and 11 less-capable MH-47Ds into MH-47Gs at the rate of six helicopters a year, piggy-backing off the US Army's CH-47F improved cargo helicopter (ICH) programme starting this year. SOCOM has been in search of extra helicopters, with approaches to Singapore to buy its six CH-47SDs and the UK's Royal Air Force to swap its Chinook HC3s for new MH-47Gs, but so far with little success.

The US Army instead has stepped in to provide the SOAR with 16 CH-47Ds to convert into MH-47Gs, "front-loaded" on to the ICH remanufacturing line. SOCOM has outlined plans for an expanded fleet of 72 MH-47Gs by the end of the decade, raising the possibility of additional army CH-47Ds being diverted to the army SOF or new MH-47Gs being built at Boeing's Philadelphia plant. The US army is planning for a modernised fleet of 302 CH-47Fs, but there are US congressional moves to add around 130 CH-47Ds that remain to the ICH line.

The MH-47E's main changes from the MH-47D and CH-47D are its more powerful Honeywell T55-714 turboshafts with full authority digital electronic control, extended-range 7,840 litre (2,068 USgal) integral fuel tanks, an integrated cockpit, a Raytheon APQ-174 terrain avoidance/terrain following (TA/TF) radar and a more comprehensive self-protection suite. The MH-47D and E share an inflight refuelling boom and have limited glass cockpits, but the former's displays are small and limited to primary flight instrumentation. The MH-47E, in contrast, has monochrome displays fully integrated with other systems such as the helicopter's AAQ-16 forward-looking infrared (FLIR) imager.

All three versions will be brought up to common special operations aviation (SOA) MH-47G configuration. This will include an improved airframe structure for reduced vibration, low-maintenance rotor hub and a marinised T55-714A engine common to the CH-47F ICH. In addition, the SOA Chinook will get infrared engine suppressors and rotor pylons upgraded for improved transportability, a new radar warning receiver, directed infrared countermeasures and possibly an improved TA/TF radar and a new second- or third-generation FLIR.

Perhaps the biggest, single most important improvement will be the Common Avionics Architecture System (CAAS) being developed by Rockwell Collins not just for the MH-47G, but also its SOAR stablemates the Sikorsky MH-60M Black Hawk and MD Helicopters M/AH-6M Little Bird.

"CAAS will provide a common cockpit for all three aircraft, with the same multifunction displays [MFD], control display units [CDU] and general processing units [GPU]. This has been the plan from the outset," says Rick Flesner, Rockwell Collins rotorcraft marketing manager.

Software development

The Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based company has been under contract to develop CAAS for more than two years and has primary responsibility for software integration and supplying the 150 x 200mm (6 x 8in) liquid-crystal displays, CDU and GPU. The fourth hardware element - the data concentrator system - will be supplied by Sanmina-SCI. CAAS is a further evolution of Rockwell Collins's Flight2 open architecture, incorporating Power PC 750 processors, two to each smart MFD, and a Posix-compliant software operating system.

SOAR has elected to go with vertical portrait-configured MFDs to accommodate five displays across the Chinook's instrument panel and provide the pilot with better situational awareness with respect to the new digital moving map. Each MFD in addition will be able host FLIR, primary flight symbology, TA/TF and offboard data, such as video from an unmanned air vehicle. There will be a split-screen capability top and bottom for multiple displays, as well as night-vision goggle compatibility.

Putting it to the test

Flight testing of CAAS is scheduled to begin this August, employing the first modified MH-47G, together with an MH-60L and MH-60K representative of the two Black Hawk versions in army SOF service. Some of the system installation is being done under contract by L-3 Communications at the US Army's Blue Grass depot in Kentucky. Initial MH-47G deliveries to the 160th SOAR are due to begin next year and run through to 2009. They are expected to keep the Chinook at the forefront of special operations for 20 years after that.

The MH-60M modernisation, like that of the MH-47G, is designed to leverage to an extent off the US Army's much larger UH-60M upgrade programme. The 160th SOAR operates two versions of the medium helicopter, the older MH-60L with a similar generation cockpit to MH-47D, and a smaller fleet of more capable MH-60Ks equipped with external fuel tanks, multimode radar and an aerial refuelling probe. The plan is to bring the combined fleet of 69 machines up to common configuration and increase the number of helicopters to 96 machines.

While the UH-60M and MH-60M will both go to full glass cockpits and use the same Rockwell Collins-supplied MFDs, the US Army chose Sikorsky as its system integrator and opted for only four displays in a horizontal landscape configuration for the UH-60M. The MH-60M cockpit, on the other hand, will closely resemble that of the MH-47G. The army explains that its layout presents less of an obstruction to a pilot's view out of the cockpit and the displays should prove easier to scan from side to side.

According to Sikorsky UH-60M programme manager Brad Peterson, the two helicopters will enjoy a high degree of structural and dynamic commonality. This will include use of the same main gearbox, active vibration control, engine infrared suppression, wide chord blades, new-build cabin fuselage and electromagnetic interference hardening of wiring. However, there will be a number of notable exceptions where the MH-60M will differ.

An increase in power

The SOAR plans to go to a completely composite tail cone and horizontal stabiliser to improve the centre of gravity range on its Black Hawks, which operate at higher gross weight and have considerably more aft-mounted self-protection equipment than the UH-60A/Ls. There is also interest in fitting the MH-60M with a more powerful engine than the 1,485kW (1,995shp) General Electric T700-701D now earmarked for the UH-60M. The SOAR has looked at two different options, both in the 1,860kW class - the GE CT7-8 now powering the Sikorsky S-92 and the Rolls-Royce Turbomeca RTM322.

R-R has been eagerly promoting the RTM322 to different branches of the US military as a lower-cost alternative to investment in the proposed new Common Engine Programme. "We have flown the RTM322 on the H-60 and we know it fits and that there are no integration problems. It delivers significantly more power and better reliability than the T700. We're continuing to have discussions with the SOF, who need an additional hot/high performance margin," says Stuart Mullin, R-R president helicopter programmes.

Completing the troika of army SOF helicopters is the MH-6J light transport and AH-6J armed variant of the Little Bird family, which traces its heritage back to the OH-6 Cayuse scout. Rockwell Collins hopes to begin work this year on developing a scaled-down CAAS suite for the upgraded MH/AH-6M, based around two MFDs in place of the present electronic flight instruments. Initial fielding is targeted for 2005.

The SOAR's fleet of 45 Little Birds is, meanwhile, receiving an incremental package of improvements, including a new six-bladed main rotor, a canted four-bladed tail rotor for better manoevrability and reduced noise signature, an uprated R-R 250-C30 turboshaft and 450kW main transmission and a structural strengthening allowing the gross weight to be increased to 2,367kg (5,210lb).

Source: Flight International