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CH-53E Super Stallion Mission Data Extender (MDE)

The CH-53E Mission Data Extender (MDE) enhances the helicopter's current operational capabilities.
The CH-53E Mission Data Extender (MDE) enhances the helicopter’s current operational capabilities.
Archive image: U.S. Marines with Combat Logistics Battalion 31, secure a Humvee to a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 262 (Reinforced), both with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), during hoist operations training at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, Feb. 19, 2023.
This helicopter support team exercise was conducted to certify pilots in sling load operations and improve tactical proficiency. The 31st MEU, the Marine Corps’ only continuously forward-deployed MEU, provides a flexible and lethal force ready to perform a wide range of military operations as the premiere crisis response force in the Indo-Pacific region.
U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Tyler Harmon.

NAVAL AIR SYSTEMS COMMAND, PATUXENT RIVER, MD. — The Mission Data Extender team (MDE) installed on CH-53E Super Stallion heavy lift helicopter is breaking new ground for naval aviation. In December 2023, H-53 Heavy Lift Helicopters Program Office (PMA-261) started installation of a first-ever fully integrated, hard-mounted commercial off-the-shelf tablet functioning as a primary mission display on a naval aircraft. In doing so, the CH-53E Mission Data Extender team provided a replacement for a legacy capability while also enhancing current operational capabilities at a fraction of the development cost and schedule of a new mission display.

“This is a huge step toward open architecture, innovative solutions to mission-data presentation,” said LCDR Neil Whitesell, PMA-261 In-Service Avionics Systems project officer. “We did it at low cost, fast, and we provided a major capability improvement to the warfighter.” 

Currently, the CH-53E Super Stallion uses two instrument panel-mounted Smart Multi-Function Color Displays (SMFCDs) as primary mission displays. The SMFCD presents hover cueing, ownship position, threat reports, route/waypoint information, moving map, and real-time Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR). The SMFCD is currently suffering from reliability and reparability issues that reduce availability on the flight line and hinder readiness. Due to the high cost and lengthy timeline to perform a technical refresh on the existing SMFCDs, the program office required an innovative solution. The PMA-261 Avionics Integrated Project Team (IPT), in conjunction with the Tactical Mobility (TacMo) IPT at Naval Air Warfare Center, Weapons Division (NAWCWD), fleet, and industry partners, developed a cyber-resilient system of systems collectively known as the Mission Data Extender (MDE) to replace the aging SMFCD. 

MDE used a novel mix of developmental and non-developmental commercial/government off-the-shelf (C/GOTS) components to provide legacy SMFCD capability, while also enhancing operational capability. The system was comprised of a GOTS avionics bus reader (MOB HUB) developed by the China Lake TacMo IPT, and the COTS Miniature Encrypted Wireless Link (MEWL) and Marine Air-Ground Tablet (MAGTAB) provided by Kranze Technology Solutions (KTS). Additionally, MAGTAB required a cockpit instrument panel mount to allow for heads up FLIR presentation in the cockpit. In close partnership with fleet users and an industry partner, Integrated Consultants Incorporated (ICI), the MDE team developed the first-ever permanent primary instrument panel mount for a COTS tablet in the naval aviation enterprise. The resulting Informant Mount provides for continuous tablet charging, quick mount/dismount of the pilots’ MAGTABs, and allows for swap-in/swap-out interchangeability with legacy SMFCDs. The Informant Mount provided flexibility for the fleet operators to tailor their preferred mission display according to mission requirements and available hardware, and to utilize their MAGTAB as both an instrument panel mission display and/or a kneeboard.  The same physical MAGTAB can now be used for mission planning, assault package briefing, mission execution, and section debrief without the need for removable media.

The CH-53E Mission Data Extender (MDE) enhances the helicopter's current operational capabilities.
The Mission Data Extender (MDE) is a fully integrated, hard-mounted commercial off-the-shelf tablet which functions as a primary mission display in the CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter cockpit.
U.S. Marine Corps photo.

In addition to mounting provisions for the MAGTAB, the MDE system also provided much-needed permanent mounting provisions for carry-on data terminals widely used throughout the CH-53E fleet. As a result, the capability of the CH-53E mission display expanded to include a new Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) capability, as well as Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) Data connectivity via carry-on ground radios. As an additional capability enhancement, the MDE was also designed to interface seamlessly with the newly fielded Link-16 and ANW2 DI system being incorporated on the CH-53E during MDE development. 

Finally, MDE development required the creation of a new software application to provide the legacy hover cueing displays available in the SMFCD. The program office was able to leverage their existing Software Support Activity (SSA), Noetic Inc, to code and deliver a new application to the MAGTAB within a single design sprint. By virtue of hosting this capability on an open system tablet, mission display capability insertion can now occur on the order of months, and at a fraction of the cost of developing new proprietary software code.  

“The CH-53E now has an aircraft-powered, WiFi-based mission display capable of seamless interoperability with several carry-on data terminals, and capable of walk-on/walk-off expeditionary mission planning,” LCDR Whitesell said. In addition, the integration allows for rapid capability insertion through Modular Open Systems Approach (MOSA) concepts, he added.  

The MDE was an exemplary example of NAVAIR’s capacity for organic innovation and rapid fielding. Altogether, the MDE system managed to bring all legacy SMFCD capability forward, concentrate all digital interoperability data onto a single aircrew interface, and place that interface on the pilot instrument panel as a tablet-based primary mission display. MDE represented a huge leap in capability and readiness, at less than one-third of the cost and schedule to upgrade the legacy SMFCD display.  

PMA-261 manages the cradle to grave procurement, development, support, fielding and disposal of the entire family of H-53 heavy lift helicopters.

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