COVID-19 Affects U.S. Army Aviation Upgrades

Credit: Boeing

The U.S. Army is aggressively upgrading its legacy AH-64 Apache, CH-47 Chinook and HH-60 Black Hawk fleets, but is encountering some delays in these efforts related to the spread of the novel coronavirus.

These platforms will continue to be in the service’s inventory for many years to come and the Army must continue making them relevant as the Pentagon pivots to Joint All-Domain Command and Control, Patrick Mason, program executive officer for aviation, told Aerospace DAILY.

The majority of Mason’s team is teleworking and monitoring COVID-19’s effect on production, engineering work and supply chain flow. The Army acknowledges issues related to COVID-19 may not materialize until the summer or fall because the supply chain currently has sufficient inventory, he said.

“Obviously, this is an incredibly unique and unprecedented time that we’re dealing with right now,” Mason said.

The Army intends to introduce the Gen III Day Side Assembly, formerly known as the Modernized Day Sensor-Assembly (MDS-A), into the Boeing AH-64E Apache Version 6 (V6) kit this fall. During operational testing users were impressed with the technology’s clear picture for target acquisition and the ease of locating a designation site made possible through electro-optical/infrared fusion.

“The good thing about the way we’ve architected this program is that the production line will be switched to V6, and then we’ll also have the ability to upgrade any of the V4s into the V6 configuration,” Mason said.

The service has not determined the number of aircraft that will be equipped with the new V6 kit off the production line or retrofitted. The V6 kit includes upgrades for a Gen III Day Side Assembly, fire control radar frequency interferometer, and an expanded manned-unmanned teaming capability. 

“It’s just another example of the kinds of technology that we can insert into these legacy platforms,” Mason said.

The service expects industry to integrate a multispectral targeting capability into Future Vertical Lift platforms, he added.

The Army is also planning to outfit the Apache and General Atomics MQ-1C Gray Eagle with air-launched effects in the mid-2020s. Mason’s unmanned aircraft system program office is conducting a technology assessment while Army Futures Command is leading demonstrations, he said.

The service funded the effort by issuing an other transaction agreement through the Aviation and Missile Technology Consortium. It will run through year’s end. Mason anticipates by 2021 the service will have a better idea of which technologies will compose the initial increment for air-launched effects.

The next upgrades on tap for the Boeing CH-47 Chinook are additional software loads for the digital flight control system and the common avionics architecture system. These are slated for June, but because of COVID-19 the timetable may shift, Mason said.

“We’re trying to monitor and understand exactly what we’re going to be able to do as we get into June,” he said. 

The Army does not want to speculate on when these upgrades will wrap up because this is based on unit availability and the requirement not to interfere with operations and training. 

The service is still plugging ahead with Block II flight testing in Mesa, Arizona, to support the special operations community.

“We have some disruption obviously due to COVID and the pandemic,” Mason said.

The limited user test is scheduled to begin in March 2021 at Fort Bliss in Texas, but it may be delayed if not enough progress is made in flight testing. The flight testing in Mesa is not paused, but the team is not generating a sufficient number of sorties because of travel restrictions imposed on government workers in response to COVID-19. The crews comprise both government and industry personnel. 

The Army is reaping substantial cost savings by upgrading UH-60Ls to the V model for about $12 million per unit instead of buying a new UH-60V for roughly $21 million in fiscal 2020 dollars.

Mason’s team partnered with the Corpus Christi Army Depot to convert the aircraft and is completing the initial tranche intended to field the first unit next year, he said. The Army intends to upgrade 760 L models to the V configuration.

“It’s a very unique and cost-effective way to increase the capability of the L models,” he said. 

Mason’s team is unable to conduct user assessments, which is delaying full-rate production. The Army anticipates the effort will enter full-rate production in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2020. This is two quarters behind the previous schedule because the team is experiencing travel restriction delays related to COVID-19.