WASHINGTON — The first Victor model of the UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopter produced at Corpus Christi Army Depot rolled off the line last month ahead of a 2021 fielding, according to the U.S. Army’s program executive officer for aviation.
The Victor model converts a Lima-model Black Hawk from an analogue cockpit with a new digital one. This replacement better matches the capability of the UH-60 Mike model, the latest variant of the helicopter. But its success could serve as a springboard for the Army’s future vertical lift backbone, which will allow mission systems to seamlessly plug into the architecture of the aircraft.
The Army partnered with Corpus Christi Army Depot, Texas, to convert “L” models into new “V” models at a rate of 48 aircraft per year, which has been called too slow, as it would take 15 years for the service to produce all 760 aircraft. The Army has been looking at ways to speed that up.
Redstone Defense Systems won an Army contract to take Northrop Grumman’s cockpit design and integrate the technology into V-model prototypes in the spring of 2014. Three prototypes spent more than two years in the Prototype Integration Facility at Redstone undergoing integration.
The aircraft’s first flight was in January 2017. The Army ran the V model through its first initial operational test and evaluation, or IOT&E, in September 2019.
“Coming out of that we had some things to fix, and so we’re doing another drop of software to address those issues,” Brig. Gen. Robert Barrie, the service’s lead on aviation capabilities, told Defense News in an interview ahead of the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference.
In a report earlier this year, the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester said the aircraft “encountered numerous software and communications problems throughout the IOT&E that degraded suitability.”
Two of the aircraft also retained the old L-model wiring harness, which had chaffing signs, the report noted. “These older systems may have contributed to reliability testing results,” it added.
“There were some latency issues,” Barrie said. “In other words, things weren’t happening as rapidly as we’d like. So what we’re trying to do is make sure we have those fully understood and address them. I’m confident that we will do so, but we will still have some work to do there.”
Success with the Victor model is part of a larger push that drives home a modular open-system approach needed for future vertical lift technology, Barrie said.
“It’s absolutely essential for no other reason than affordability,” he said. “But the reality is, we’ve got other objectives: their adaptability, our ability to deliver in a timely fashion and then to enhance competition over time, affordability through competition.”
In the case of the Black Hawk, the CH-47F Chinook cargo helicopter and the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, “in order for us to make modifications to the aircraft, we have to go back to our original equipment manufacturer and then open up the operational flight program and then make the changes in collaboration with changes that are in the entirety of the aircraft system,” Barrie said.
With the Victor model, “we are going to carry forward across the fleet, to whatever extent we can, and certainly in the case of FVL, we will incorporate it from the get-go; [it] is more of an open-system approach,” he said.
The Army acknowledges that portions of the aircraft, primarily in the flight controls and critical safety items, will remain with the original equipment manufacturer “and they will, really, in perpetuity,” Barrie said.
“What we’re really trying to do is bifurcate the aircraft architecturally and everything that is a mission system, sensor, a piece of communication equipment, a weapon system, could potentially be integrated through an open interface that would allow the government significantly more flexibility and adaptability in delivering that capability,” he added.
The Victor-model does that for an existing platform, he explained.
“AMCS from a hardware perspective and software perspective is essentially our first foray into: Can we bifurcate the aircraft? Can we have the front end of the aircraft with the flight control? Then can we use AMCS as the integration mechanism by which we add sensors?” Barrie said. “Can we feed that to the cockpit without cracking open the cockpit architecture software?”
The Army still must determine how to handle mission system architecture on the FVL fleet. “In other words, are we going to dictate they’re going to use AMCS? Are we going to go with a different path? And we’re still working that out,” Barried said.
There is “work to go on Victor,” he added. “It’s a tough nut to crack,” but “when we get this right, it’s going to be a benefit in the long term for the Army.”
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.