Its been the preeminent attack helicopter for the last 30-plus years but is it still the top dog?
Built to fight the Soviet Union and the hordes of Soviets tanks on the plains of eastern Europe which up until a year ago seemed like an outdated idea but with Ukraine it’s very much back in focus.
The Apache was first introduced in 1986, 37 years ago and saw its first major combat in Operation Just Cause, the invasion of Panama in 1989, clocking up 240 combat hours mostly at night using its advanced FLIR night vision and the Hellfire air-to-ground anti-armour missiles.
General Carl Stiner, the operation commander, said that “You could fire that Hellfire missile through a window from 6.5km at night” which made it the first attack helicopter able to go beyond the front line of it own troops.
But time and tide wait for no man and over those 37 years many advances have been made, so how has the Apache faired, and is it still the most effective attack helicopter in the world?
The story of the Apache goes back to 1972 when the Lockheed AH-56 Cheyenne was cancelled by the Army. I did a video about that a while back if you want to find out more later, there’s a link in the corner to take you there.
The AH-56 Cheyenne was the first truly dedicated attack helicopter designed from the ground up with many advanced features that would later be seen in the Apache, rather than being a modified version of an existing design like the Bell cobra which was a development of the Bell UH-1 Iroquois or huey.
Back in 1948 the U.S came up with the Key West Agreement which set out the division of air assets between the Army, Navy, and the newly created Air Force which still forms the basis and use of these right up to today’s U.S. military. This forbids the army from having fixed-wing aircraft and limited them to helicopters.
However, in 1971 with the development of the AH-56 Cheyenne behind schedule there were tensions between the Army and the Airforce with the airforce seeing the AH-56 Cheyenne as duplicating part of their job for close air support. It was capable of doing the job of a fixed wing attack aircraft but with the advantages of a helicopter and the Advanced Aerial Fire Support System.
However, the air force was determined to kill the project and applied maximum political pressure to do so. This would allow them to go on to develop the A10 Thunderbolt “Warthog” and the Sea Harrier for the Marines. Other issues such as the rate of development of digital systems also went against the Cheyenne which was mostly an analogue aircraft and was already outdated by the time of its cancellation in 1971.
Even though the army had lost the AH-56 Cheyenne, they were still determined to have their own advanced attack helicopter and in august 1972 announced the Advanced Attack Helicopter program to replace the Bell AH-1 Cobra. This would have greater range, firepower and manoeuvrability to fly very low and use the terrain, hills and valleys or nap of the earth flying to hide from enemy radar.
There were two main contenders the Bell YaH-63 and the Hughes YaH-64. After trials in 1975 the Hughes YaH-64 was chosen as the winner because amongst other things its four-bladed propeller was more damage tolerant capable of taking a 23 calibre hit and the taildragger tricycle landing gear was thought more stable than the single front wheel tricycle landing gear of the Bell. The army also didn’t want to interrupt the supply of Bell hueys which were a mainstay of the US army aviation.
Following the Army tradition of naming helicopters after native American Indian tribes and chiefs the YaH-64 became the AH-64A Apache, a heavy attack platform for close air support and armed escort for other aircraft.
One of the main armaments the new helicopter would use was also in development from 1974 was the laser-guided and later radar-guided Hellfire missile. Originally a tank buster it is now a multi-mission, multi-target precision-strike weapon.
To give extra power and durability, the Apache had twin GE T700 turboshaft engines with initially 1696hp each giving a top speed of 293km or 183mph. The body of the Apache was narrow with the pilot sitting behind and above the gunner. This narrow head-on profile presents a smaller more difficult-to-hit target than the wider two-abreast helicopters like the heuy and black hawk.
One of the biggest features was the helmet-mounted display, the Integrated Helmet and Display Sighting System. This was linked to the high-power optics mounted in the nose of the Apache and could be connected to either the pilot or the gunner’s helmet to control the 30 mm automatic M230 Chain Gun, so where ever the pilot or the gunner looked the gun would follow.
The stub wings had four hard points to carry a mixture of unguided 70mm Hydra missiles, Hellfire missiles and extra fuel tanks for extended-range missions if required.
The body had titanium and Kevlar armour to protect not only the crew but also important systems like avionics, engines, gearbox etc. The gearbox is also designed to run without oil for up to 30 mins in case it was holed. The crew cabin had a bulletproof divider between the pilot and gunner so if one is hit, a ricocheting round inside the cabin won’t take out both of them.
This protection was given a real baptism of fire during the second Iraq war when a squadron was sent into Bagdad on march 23rd 2003 to take on the medina division of the republican guard before the main attack began.
Flying in at 50ft over the suburbs southwest of Bagdad they came under an intense attack from all sides from small arms, anti-aircraft guns and RPGs, going both in and then coming back out. Every Apache took lots of hits, but none were lost even if some were badly damaged and one of the crew was badly injured.
In Iraq from 2003 to 2009, 15 Apaches were lost to hostile fire including four which were destroyed on the ground by enemy mortar fire which proved they were very tough considering they were in the heat of the action and a primary target.
There have been five major revisions of the Apache since its launch with the AH-64 A, B, C, D and E V6 being the latest.
Of these, the AH-64 D in 2003 saw the introduction of the AN/APG-78 Longbow bow fire control radar which is the doughnut-shaped object above the propeller blades. This elevated position allows the helicopter to hover just above the brow of a hill or tree line and let the millimetre radar scan the horizon without exposing the helicopter. The original could identify 128 targets and then prioritize the 16 most important within 30 seconds. It could also transmit this location data to ground-based artillery and other Apache’s for coordinated attacks.
The abilities of the latest Apache V6 AH-64E “Guardian” have increased dramatically as advances in digital electronics have increased.
The main updates here allow the new Apache Guardians to be part of the modern digital battlefield. This ties the Apache into a common network where data can be shared between planes like the F-35, tanks, fighting vehicles, artillery, and convoy/support vehicles, even down to the troops on the ground directly on their rifleman radios.
Commanders can see what each helicopter, plane and vehicle can see and share information with any of them and others, letting them know where everyone is relative to the enemy and friendlies.
As part of the upgrade, the Longbow radar can now identify 256 targets instead of 128 targets at up twice the distance as before as well as a new 360-degree surveillance mode. It also has a maritime mode that allows navy versions to engage small maritime targets, such as fast attack and landing vessels.
The V6 Guardian can control drones and UAVs and with new colour displays to replace the old green monochrome ones linked to the new Lockheed Martin Target Acquisition Designation Sight/Pilot Night Vision system means that they can see farther than the weapons have range allowing Apache V6 pilots to detect, recognize, and engage targets from greater distances or in low visibility like fog and dust storms and at night.
And this is where the effectiveness of the Apache really has the advantage over the foreign rivals even if they might have better armour or protection.
The new digital connectivity with the rest of the digital battlefield gives them a situation awareness which is far greater than their adversaries, not only knowing where all their own forces are but knowing more about where the enemy is than the enemy knows themselves.
There are also far more Apaches, over 2400 compared to their Russian or Chinese equivalents which are counted in the hundreds and in many more countries around the world.
The Apache looks likely to carry on in service well into the 2030s and beyond until the Future Vertical Lift project produces its ultimate successor.
The application of advanced technology has kept what is a 40-year-old design at the top of the tree, and above the competition and until its adversaries adopt a similar digital battlefield it looks like the Apache will stay at the top.