The Apache helicopter may originally have been designed to fight Cold War enemies, but US Army officials say it is adapting to the modern battlefield quite nicely.
The Apache may have been designed for attacking land convoys, but operators in Iraq are in high demand for their ability to provide close-air support. Here, an AH-64D Apache Longbow helps watch over an explosive-ordnance-disposal team in Iraq.
Though declining to provide too many specifics, Army officials and industry contractors speaking on Oct. 3 at the annual Association of the US Army (AUSA) conference in Washington, DC, said that Apache pilots employ new tactics in using the helicopters in Iraq and Afghanistan, where – thanks to software changes in the aircraft's avionics – the Apache can now "dive and fire" and otherwise maneuver quickly in the battlefield to support operations, rather than simply hover over, say, a convoy of land vehicles, as originally envisioned by designers.
The 30mm gun of the Apache is the weapon of choice for operators in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to COL Mark Hayes, Apache TRADOC systems manager, particularly in open areas and for suppression of enemy fire, but the Apache's Hellfire missiles have also proven very useful in urban environments for precise targeting. (For more on helicopter threats and tactics see "Video: The Apaches of Anaconda" and "Targets of Opportunity.")
Mike Burke, director of Army rotorcraft business development for Boeing (St. Louis, MO), described an instance in Falluja, Iraq, when 30 minutes into a battle between US ground forces and Iraqi insurgents, snipers operating out of the top floor of a building had soldiers pinned down. US forces detected where the threat was, but could not shoot into the floor from where they operated from down below. A call for aid from an Apache equipped with Hellfire missiles took out the insurgent fighters within about 30 seconds, Burke said, and with minimal collateral damage.
The US Army has approximately 720 Apaches in all, with about 120 being used in current operations at any one time. Increased use of the aircraft have required new processes for "reset" of the aircraft, with the goal of returning aircraft to field readiness within 60 days. COL Hayes said the current tempo for operations is four to five times that of "peacetime." To help make sure that the aircraft are serviced quickly, a Boeing logistical representative is assigned to every Army battalion with "D-model" units, the company said.
The AH-64 Apache can carry various types of missiles, providing operators with scary firepower, but its 30 mm guns are what are used most often in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Army officials say.
The letter D designates Apaches upgraded from the original AH-64A models, of which 220 remain in operation. The D models now in existence include 284 Block I AH-64D Apaches – upgraded in 1997 to include improved radar, more autonomous missiles, and better cockpit displays – and 217 Block II AH-64D Apaches – a second upgrade program still in progress that is providing some of the original A models with night-vision sensors, color cockpit displays, digital maps, and longer range radar. The Army aims to upgrade all of the Block I and II Apaches, plus an additional 96 planned Block II Apaches, to Block III by 2020.
Block III capabilities include those of Block II, but also include capabilities such unmanned-aerial-vehicle (UAV) connectivity, fire-control-radar enhancements, improved data modems and satellite communications, a cognitive decision-aiding system, and improved countermeasures dispensers.
Funding of the 96 hoped-for additional Block II Apaches was partially achieved last month with the Sept. 23 announcement that the US Army signed a $192.5-million deal with Boeing to build 13 additional Block II Apaches. In support of these aircraft, Lockheed Martin (Orlando, FL) on Oct. 3 announced a new $75-million contract for Arrowhead Modernized Target Acquisition and Designation Sight/Pilot Night Vision Sensor (M-TADS/PVNS) systems for 13 AH-64D Apaches, with deliveries to begin early in 2007 and be completed early the following year. These systems will incorporate newly designed forward-looking infrared (FLIR) sensor and new TADS electronic displays and controls, Lockheed Martin said.
Program managers and contractors perhaps feel the need to promote both the current usefulness of and future improvements to the Apache, given the vulnerability to military programs these days as the various services of the military cope with maintaining current operations while also "transforming" themselves to fight future conflicts (see "Expecting the Unexpected"). Part of Boeing's public-relations effort at the AUSA show included distribution to reporters of a glossy 54-page publication called "Apache News 2006: Continue the Mission" as well DVDs containing video of Apache in action.
COL Hayes said during the briefing that the Block III will fulfill the Army's wishes to, among other things, acquire better radar capabilities for the Apache, allow it to better spot threats, and give it better night-vision systems, but that, all in all, the Apache as it is today is a lot more survivable than had been expected. "It can take a lot of small-arms fire and keep flying," he said.