Electronic Weapons: The Helmet That Changed Everything

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August 17, 2015: The U.S. Department of Defense is upgrading the "look and shoot" helmet displays used by F-35, F-15, F-16 and F-18 pilots. F-35s are getting the latest version (the U.S.–Israeli HMDS, Helmet-Mounted Display System) of these smart helmets and that will include a new VR (Virtual Reality) feature. These new helmets can display graphics in real time and the VR feature enables the helmet display to show what is beneath the aircraft (via cameras on the fuselage beneath the cockpit) when the pilot looks down with this VR feature turned on. This can be very useful in combat, ground attack or simply landing. This feature proved particularly effective when operating at night. HMDS is also closely integrated with the very capable F-35 avionics and thus will enable to the F-35 to be the first modern jet without a standard HUD (mounted above the cockpit instruments in front of the pilot).

Basic features of these "look and shoot" helmet displays include information displayed on the visor, and sensors in the helmet, which enables the pilot to look at the target (either another aircraft, or something on the ground) and fire a weapon (missile) that will go after the target being looked at. Recent upgrades allow the pilot to also put "head up display" (HUD) information on the helmet visor visual system. This is a big advantage in air combat, where it's always been a problem having to look down at some display or instrument reading, and take your eyes off the surrounding air space. This makes it safer for pilots (especially when flying on the deck, at high speed) and in combat. Another recent enhancement allows each pilot to customize what information is shown on their helmet visor.

These helmets are one of the major, and little mentioned, revolutions in air combat. Enabling a pilot to “look and shoot” as well as keep their heads up more of the time and more quickly make decisions in air-to-air combat is a big deal. This dramatic change has not gotten much publicity because there has been such little air-to-air combat in the last few decades. But in realistic training exercises the difference has been noted. This has been documented in detail (and classified) in the United States because since the 1970s, American combat pilots have done regular training in instrumented air space, where every move by aircraft and decision by pilots is recorded. This provides all sorts of data on how the aircraft and pilot performance has evolved over the decades. The new helmets have turned out to be a major innovation in air combat.

A major advance in the design of these helmets occurred in 2012 when a new version of the American JHMCS (Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System) entered service. The JHMCS II allows the user to fire at weapons wherever their eyes are pointed, no matter what direction the helmet is pointed. This new version uses better hardware and software to track the movement of the pilot's eyes. The new JHMCS was better balanced and much more comfortable to wear and use. The new version was more reliable and cheaper as well. Still, a JHMCS II costs about a million dollars. It's an expensive way to cover your head. The cost of JHMCS includes additional equipment to be installed in the cockpit, training, and technical support.

The JHMCS also allows a pilot to see critical flight and navigation information displayed on his visor. Sort of like a see-through computer monitor or Head Up Display. This enables the pilot to look around more often without having to look down at cockpit displays or straight ahead at a HUD (Head Up Display). This kind of freedom gives an experienced pilot an extra edge in finding enemy aircraft or targets and maneuvering to get into a better position for attacks. JHMCS is also useful for air to ground attacks.

Systems like JHMCS have been very effective but JHMCS II is lighter and easier to wear (weight was a major problem in the past), easier to use, and more reliable (if you don't bump into the canopy). The Israelis firm Elbit took the lead in developing this technology and made many technical breakthroughs with their earlier DASH (Display and Sight Helmet) system. Elbit teamed up with American firms to develop and market JHMCS, which is largely an improved DASH system. This also led to the F-35s HMDS.

The first helmet mounted sights were developed in South Africa in the 1970s. The Russians noted this development when they lost several jet fighters in Angola to South African pilots using the helmets. The Russians went to work and five years later had one of their own. It proved very effective and scared NATO air forces when the Russian helmet was demonstrated by German fighter pilots from the former East German (the Germanys united in 1991) against experienced American F-16 pilots. Israel was the first Western air force to develop one of these helmets and is still a leader in the field.

Since the 1980s these helmets have come to handle more data and chores while also being easier to wear. But these helmets are still heavy. That's why the better balance of JHMCS II was important. Even so shortly after September 11, 2001 the U.S. Air Force introduced a new neck muscle exercise machine in air force gyms frequented by fighter pilots. This was because the new helmets weighed 2 kg (4.3 pounds), which was about fifty percent more than a plain old helmet. That extra weight may not seem like much but when making a tight turn, the gravitational pull (or "Gs") makes the helmet feel like it weighs 17.3 kg (38 pounds). You need strong neck muscles to deal with that. For decades now fighter pilots have had to spend a lot of time building upper body strength in the gym, in order to be able to handle the G forces. Otherwise, pilots can get groggy or even pass out in flight, as well as land with strained muscles.

Before the helmet mounted displays and aiming systems were available, pilots had to keep checking instruments in the cockpit and use fixed targeting systems. Not having to keep looking at the cockpit displays saved valuable seconds in jet fighter combat that was often over in less than ten seconds. Repeated combat exercises (and actual combat) between pilots with the helmets and those without has made this unequivocal. It’s been a revolutionary development in air combat.

In the air combat community the innovation is recognized as real and, for those not using it, a deadly disadvantage. To make the most of tech like this you must allow your pilots to spend hundreds of hours in the air practicing with the helmets. This is one reason why China and Russia adopted the more expensive Western style of training pilots over the last few decades.

 


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