USMC completes first Link 16-configured AH-1Z flight

The US Marine Corps (USMC) has successfully completed the first flight of a Bell AH-1Z Viper configured with Link 16 hardware and software, demonstrating a two-way connection capability between the attack helicopter and a ground station.

The completion of this major milestone was announced by the type’s manufacturer, Bell, on June 7. Developed by Northrop Grumman, the Link 16 datalink capability will be integrated onto the USMC’s AH-1Z Viper and Bell UH-1Y Venom battlefield utility helicopter fleets during the first half of this decade. Bell states the integration of the system comes as part of “planned improvements designed to ensure the H-1 platform maintains its technological edge and combat capability throughout its service life.”

Col Vasilios Pappas, programme manager for the USMC’s H-1 Light/Attack Helicopter Program Office (PMA-276), said: “The H-1 has decades of battlefield experience, it has evolved to fight in numerous environments. The integration of Link 16 aligns with this platform’s ability to adapt to the ever-changing threat and meet the needs of current and future warfighters.”

AH-1Z conducts first flight with Link 16 [Joy Shrum via NAVAIR]
A USMC-operated Bell AH-1Z Viper attack helicopter assigned to the US Navy's Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 21 (HX-21) 'Blackjack' takes off from Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, for its first flight with Northrop Grumman's Link 16 datalink system. Joy Shrum via US Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR)

This recent milestone was accomplished through a collaborative effort between the USMC’s PMA-276, Bell and Northrop Grumman, with the project team leveraging the commercial best practices of agile development methodologies. According to Bell, “this strategy provided an under glass solution from concept requirements to vehicle design testing in 12 months.”

Integration of the Link 16 datalink on the AH-1Z will enable the attack helicopter to quickly obtain and share sensor information with other weapon systems through the platform’s onboard digital architecture. To accomplish this, the Viper has received Northrop Grumman’s Link 16 package, which comprises a new digital moving map; a new security architecture; and the Link 16 and Advanced Networking Wideband Waveform (ANW2) datalinks. During this first flight, a two way connection between the aircraft's Link 16 and ANW2 datalinks was made with a ground station for the first time.

James Conroy, vice president of Navigation, Targeting and Survivability at Northrop Grumman, added: “Northrop Grumman’s Link 16 system will help US Marines today, and well into the future, with critical technology that facilitates coordination, collaboration and interoperability. By enabling the display and integration of Link 16 data with the H-1 system, pilots of the AH-1Z will have greater situational awareness and enhanced survivability.”

As per current plans, the USMC will continue flight testing the Link 16-configured AH-1Z Viper through the summer. The service will then subsequently launch a flight test campaign of the system aboard the UH-1Y Venom. At present, the USMC anticipates that the initial fleet integration of Link 16 on the AH-1Z will begin in 2022.