WASHINGTON — In the final months of 2017, the Army is planning to test out a new upgrade for the AH-64 Apache that will give the attack helicopter more control over two different unmanned aircraft systems, and at farther distances, officials told Defense News.
The new MUMT-X system — short for manned-unmanned teaming X — will allow the crew of an AH-64E to control the sensors and flight path of Textron’s RQ-7 Shadow and the General Atomics MQ-1C Gray Eagle, something users in the field cannot do with current systems.
MUMT-X will give Apache crews a much-needed jolt in capability as teams of AH-64s and UAS take over the armed reconnaissance mission. As part of its aviation restructure initiative, the Army decided to retire its fleet of OH-58D Kiowa Warrior scout helicopters, supplanting it with a more cost-effective mix of Apaches and Shadows. The last OH-58 made its final flight on September 18.
Currently, all AH-64Ds and AH-64Es are equipped with a datalink that allows “level two” interoperability with a Shadow or Gray Eagle, meaning the helicopters can receive video streams and other data from the drone, said Will Papich, the Army’s product director of Apache sensors.
About 28 Echoes also have level three and four interoperability with the Gray Eagle — which enables the Apache pilot to control the UAS’s sensors and flight path — through the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Tactical Common Data Link Assembly, or UTA. A similar technology was never fielded for the Shadow, he told Defense News in an Oct. 3 interview.
However, the UTA system was “prohibitively expensive” and the Army abandoned its procurement years ago in favor of equipping more of its Apaches with level two control, he said.
By the end of December, the Army will have completed verification tests at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, of MUMT-X, which will finally give Echo models level three and four control of the Shadow and extend interoperability with Gray Eagle further into the fleet. During the tests, the service will prove that an Apache pilot can manipulate the sensors and laser designator of the two UAVs.
MUMT-X is predominantly a hardware upgrade comprised of an air- to-air-to-ground (AAG-X) kit mounted on the belly of the aircraft, which allows the Apache to transmit and receive video with ground units, and an upper receiver (UR-X) that gives it the ability to communicate with UAVs. The service has already done some preliminary flight tests at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., to help verify integration of the capability.
“MUMT-X offers enhanced capabilities. It’s got a directional antenna that will give you further range. We added a [frequency] band,” Papich said, adding that will operate on the Ku, C, L and S bands. “So it’s a much better product than what the Army had with UTA, so that’s why the office decided to go with it. A lot less costly, too.”
The Army will finish up its follow on test and evaluation phase, or FOTE, next year, said John Schibler, director of vertical lift and attack helicopters engineering for Boeing, which manufactures the AH-64.
“MUMT is first and foremost about increasing situational awareness, which increases survivability, which by definition is going to make you more lethal from a greater standoff distance.” “With fewer assets and farther away, you can take out targets hopefully at a lower cost.”
Eventually all Echo models will receive the AAG-X kit, Papich said. Meanwhile 15 out of every 24 Apaches will get UR-X, giving those helicopters the full MUMT-X capability that allows them to control a UAV. The remaining nine helicopters will be equipped with fire control radars.
The AH-64Es coming off the production line with the sixth version of software will be fielded with MUMT-X already onboard. Those with V4 software will be retrofitted in the field with MUMT-X kits. Both pathways will permit the Army to field the capability in fiscal year 2019, he said.
Although an Apache pilot will not be able to fire weapons from MQ-1 Gray Eagle when MUMT-X becomes operational, that functionality is included in the Army’s roadmap and could be fielded as early as 2021, Papich said.
Boeing is also investing in technologies meant to decrease crew workload, such as a cockpit upgrade that would replace the Apache’s three-screen display with a single large area display like what is found in modern fighters like the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet or F-35, said Paul Meyers, the company’s senior manager of attack helicopter modernization.
It’s also developing an advanced flight control system that sends cues to the crew about the state of the aircraft, as well as cognitive decision aiding software that will help “make recommendations … about appropriate flight routes based on their flight conditions and threat conditions, for example,” he said.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.