By SSG Christopher D. Smith
In an ever changing battlefield, the demand for the ability to transmit real-time battlefield metadata and video air-to-air/air-to-ground is becoming increasingly important. Some argue that unmanned aviation assets will one day replace our manned aircraft like the Apache; however, the relationship between manned and unmanned aviation systems is much more effective when the relationship is symbiotic.
The AH-64E Apache Army helicopter can now deploy with a greatly enhanced tactical advantage on the battlefield. Apache pilots now have the ability to communicate with unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to receive and transmit real-time imagery, metadata, and also monitor UAS sensor and weapons payload information. This is made possible through the Unmanned Tactical Common Data Link (TCDL) Assembly (UTA) system.
The UTA consists of two integrated systems: UAS Receiver (UR) for receive only and Air-to-Air/Air-to-Ground (AAG) for transmit and receive. It is broken down into four levels of interoperability (LOI) each allowing a variety of capabilities. The UTA Level 2 allows Apache pilots to fly mission routes while monitoring a direct data and video feed from the UAS while flying its own flight path. When a situation permits, UTA Level 3 will allow a copilot gunner in the Apache to have control of the payload sensor of the UAS while it is flown by its ground unit operators. The UTA Level 4 gives Apache aviators full control of a UAS’s capabilities less takeoff and landings. Apache pilots with UTA 4 can assign its unmanned wingman to area reconnaissance, surveillance and even the targeting of enemy forces across a large area of operation.
The UTA on any LOI has the ability to record data taped via Apache observed and video received from UAS feed utilizing a digital video recorder (DVR). This multichannel recording device can support up to three channels of simultaneous recording. Each DVR is equipped with a Solid State Recording Device (SSRD) that is self-contained and tightly sealed keeping the stored video data safe.
With this increase in capability for the platform comes a maintenance requirement that challenges our Apache maintainers’ skills. In order to perform maintenance operational checks our maintainers now must understand data compression rates, frequencies across multiple bands of transmission, and computer networking fundamentals such as identifying and inputting internet protocol (IP) addresses.
Working with the platform managers, the 128th Aviation Brigade has ensured technical manual procedures and test equipment for this vital system have been streamlined to the point that maintainers with the appropriate training can easily fault isolate and return systems to an operational status quickly and efficiently. Maintenance operational checks (MOC) are written so that specific areas and functions can be checked/isolated without having to go through the whole system.
There is no longer a need to have two UTA-equipped aircraft to perform MOCs with the fielding of a unique UTA test set. The test set, which can be set up and operated by a maintainer in a matter of minutes, has already been fielded to those units who have received the UTA. Exportable training packages have also been developed to provide Soldiers in the field with refresher and sustainment training.
The Apache is battlefield proven. The added ability of a UAS wingman increases its firepower and overall effectiveness to support and sustain ground troops in combat. While the added benefits are almost immeasurable with the added task saturation involved, it will be important for aviators to maintain the highest level of crew coordination. The unmanned aircraft’s capabilities are enhanced under the guidance of its Apache aviators.
Ensuring this system is always operational and fully mission capable when needed is the challenge for our aviation system maintainers.
SSG Christopher D. Smith is a 15T Training Developer in the Systems Integration Division, S3, 128th Aviation Brigade, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, VA.