Helmet Mounted Displays Are a Key Combat Advantage for U.S. and Allied Pilots

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What are the capabilities or technologies that distinguish advanced fighter aircraft from their predecessors? A reader would likely list electronically-scanning radar and other sensors, high-performance engines, advanced avionics, and maybe precision munitions. If one were considering fifth-generation aircraft, the F-22 and F-35, then supercruise power, stealth shaping and coating, and information sharing would be added. But how many would include helmet-mounted displays (HMDs) on their list. Yet HMDs are now part of the equipment aboard thousands of fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft. HMDs constitute a key advantage for U.S. and allied pilots in any future conflict.

Described simply, an HMD is a video projector displaying fused sensor information on the inside of the pilot’s helmet – a form of augmented reality – allowing them to see the world overlaid with critical information and take necessary action quickly. HMDs send critical and time-sensitive information directly into the pilot’s view, no matter where they turn their head. Operationally, this is essential for both air-to-air and air-to-ground combat. It is vital for pilots to keep “eyes-out” (looking outside the cockpit) for everything from the next threat or target to their wingman's location. This is opposed to being “eyes-in” (looking inside the cockpit) while monitoring legacy displays and controls.

The modern HMD for fighter aircraft serves several functions. These include elevating the pilot's overall situational awareness, enhancing their ability to keep their eyes "out of the cockpit," and, most importantly, giving the pilot the ability to target weapons and sensors by merely looking at said object or locale.

With the most advanced HMDs, such as those used on the F-35, the pilot can look through the aircraft in any direction. This helmet is so sophisticated and impressive that F-35 pilots fly with only two displays – one in their cockpit, the other on their helmet. It is the only HMD in the world certified to serve as a pilot’s primary display.

The ability to see in all directions and have information presented directly in the pilot’s vision is a game-changer. As one study of HMDs explained it: “If fighter pilots depend only on their eyes when flying over the battlefield, they would not have the advantage in rapidly changing modern warfare. If the fire control radar developed in the 1950s is a milestone in the history of fighter aircraft, then the helmet-mounted display (HMD) is another. According to a study by the Israeli Research Institute, operational capacities of fighter planes armed with HMDs have increased by three times.”

The information provided to U.S. and allied pilots through the HMDs will be critical in future conflicts involving great power competitors. Russia and China have spent hundreds of billions of dollars on advanced integrated air defense systems. China operates a massive fleet of fighters, more than the total number of U.S. and allied fighters in the Western Pacific. Although many are older aircraft, China is looking to modernize its Air Force. In 2017, China began deploying the J-20, the first stealth fighter built outside the United States.

The U.S. and its allies will need every advantage that western aerospace technology can provide if they are to counter the sheer numbers. HMDs are a force multiplier. In air-to-ground missions, they provide pilots with the critical navigation and threat information that will allow them to maneuver through an integrated air defense. In the air, HMDs allow pilots to more rapidly and accurately engage hostile forces while also avoiding threats.

Today, 39 allied nations and three branches of the U.S. armed forces fly with a common HMD, and the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS), including more than 800 F-15s, over 1,000 F/A-18s, over 2,500 F-16s and the F-35. All combined, more than 6,000 JHMCS-based HMDs have been delivered to the U.S. and allied aviators. U.S. A-10s and National Guard F-16s use a different system. European-build Typhoons and Sweden’s Gripen fighter are flying with a third type of HMD. French aircraft fly with yet another HMD. Oddly enough, the F-22, the premier fifth-generation air superiority fighter, is not equipped with an HMD.

The HMD is now almost routinely included in upgrade programs for fourth-generation aircraft. Recently, the USAF began flight testing the newest version of the JHMCS HMD – the JHMCS II – aboard the F-16V, the newest variant of the F-16. The F-16V is the modern upgrade of a legacy airframe, bringing them to the same capability as newly built aircraft of the same configuration, the F-16 Block 70. Operationally, they are essentially the same, equipped with new computers, displays, and sensors to improve their combat effectiveness. Multiple customers, including South Korea, Taiwan, Bahrain and others, are looking to purchase new F-16s or upgrade aircraft for their fleets to the F-16V standard. The JHMCS II will become the baseline (factory installed) HMD for all these aircraft.

Becoming a baseline system on a frontline fighter is not an easy, inexpensive, or quick endeavor. In the case of JHMCS II, the ongoing flight tests come at the end of a multiyear partnership with Lockheed Martin, involving significant investment and resources. These efforts include development and integration into the baseline configuration that will ensure the HMD is fully capable of delivering the desired capabilities for decades to come as new weapons and sensors become available.

The United States and its allies are in a long-term, strategic, military and technological competition with Russia and China. As the new Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, General Charles Q. Brown, Jr. pointed out in his strategic approach document, “air dominance is not an American birthright.” He went on to assert that in order to compete, the Air Force must “rapidly move forward with digital, low cost, high tech, warfighting capacities.” Providing U.S. and Allied aircraft, particularly fourth-generation platforms with modern HMDs, is one way of achieving General Brown's vision.

Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.

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