An interview with someone in the know on Apache Attack Helicopters

Afraid I’m not permitted to reveal my source (which is  quite cool for a novice writer!). This is an interview I had whilst working at DefenceIQ.

Thoughts and comments welcome.

What makes the Apache unique?

Although the Apache was designed in the 1970s as a tank killer, when that threat vanished, Apache operators learned it was capable to perform more missions than originally visioned. So the Apache is able to perform missions along all spectrums of conflict.

Iit runs the gamut of reconnaissance and surveillance to attack modes. It is a very successful design and over the past 25-30 years the aircraft has continued to be upgraded with current technologies. And new technologies as they are available are put in block form.

A very efficient development process was established early, which is really amazing when you think about its development over more than 30 years. The A model has evolved into the D model.  The Cobra has had a long life but it has gone through the alphabet and now is up to Z – Zulu.

The Apache started at A and went directly to D — no B or C designation, which is interesting.

The fully integrated capability, the ability to use its radar to scan the battlefield, to be able to communicate and eliminate the need for voice chats – all these things give the Apache unique advantages on the battlefield. Its performance, the ability to be maintained in the field and the ability to survive attacks are its key attributes.

If you go back and look at some of the stories from the Desert Storm through current Operations you can learn a lot about the Apache and how it has been deployed.

There is one story of a battalion of Apaches, more than 20 helicopters, which flew across Iraq in the middle of the night. Local residents were on their cell phones telling soldiers that the helicopters were coming. When the helicopters arrived, the situation was not as they expected and the aircraft turned around and headed back.But they flew through a gauntlet of enemy fire that damaged the aircraft but did not bring them down. Every one of the helicopters made it back safely even though they had been shot up.

The aircraft is capable of taking hits, and it’s capable of surviving.

All of these factors make the Apache unrivalled in combat.  Its ability to perform is what makes it unique.

What are its specific strengths?

Well its lethality is the main thing.  And survivability it critically important too.

The ability to shoot targets without being seen.

The ability to fire missiles from extended ranges so that the enemy doesn’t even know its coming.

It’s the kind of thing that the enemy is afraid of – it makes them not want to go out to work that day! They don’t know if they’ll come back.

That’s how bad Apache is!

When you look at the videos that have leaked out over the years, you understand that when you are a target you are in trouble.

Does the Apache have an advantage over other attack helicopters?

The Apache has the ability to see further and can effectively deploy weapons at greater ranges than other attack helicopters   These and other technolgies make the Apache stand out as unique.

The prevailing message seems to be that the Apache has many competitors, but no competition.

The bottom line is that the Apache has proven it can perform and that it can be efficiently maintained.

One documented fact that is valuable is looking at the number of flight hours the Apache has logged – more than 3.5 million. It has been in constant use in very dangerous and unfriendly environments.

Until another helicopter has matching data, it’s hard to compare Apache to anything.

One other thing that Apache does better than anyone else is modernization through what is called the “technology roadmap.”

‘A’ models were still being produced when testing was begun to incorporate digital capabilities.

As the US Army was fielding thethe first ‘D’ models, designers and engineers were already looking at the next generationApache.  Though its evolution the aircraft has transformed from black and white monotone screens to full colour moving map displays, eliminating the need for radio conversation to collect data and communicate with forces on the ground.

As Apache has added capabilities, the helicopter has become more effective and setting itself apart from the competition.

What are the key upgrades?

Today’s AH-64D Apache Block III, first delivered in October 2012,features increased flight performace with  an improved drive system which provides the ability to use more power from its  engines, and composit rotor blades.

It has increased the situational awareness with cognitive decision-aiding and fused sensor information resulting in improved survivability and targeting

System-level diagnostics,  upgrade to the fuselage –  strengthening it – is part of the aircraft’s improved sustainability.

The upgrades to the computer processing – the Apache has a modular structure – open archtecture design —  enables new software to be uploaded  without having to requalify the whole aircraft.

These are the more significant aircraft enhancements.

Could you explain the UAV Synergy?

The new Block III Apache features Level 4 UAV control.  That means being able to direct a UAV’s flight path and the control it’s sensors.  It extends the crewmember’s vision, allowing them to seemiles ahead and seeing whether or not that’s the route they want to take or that’s the target they must go after.

Considering the targeting capabilities of the Apache, if the crew can see several miles ahead then they will be able to address the threat without even getting close enough to put themselves in danger.

Where can it be used?

The missions of the helicopter are the choice and decision of the battlefield commanderss.

The Apache has capabilities to be used in day/night operations, used in search and rescue, command and control.

If you put these capabilities in to the equation and a defence force can apply it to a wide range of threats.

Where is the Apache going to be in 10 years?

The question really comes down to technology. If a new technology or capability is coming online then you can speculate.

There are a few articles published that talk about potential upgrades and capabilities.


Army cutbacks have as much to do with history as austerity

At a defence conference last week, Philip Hammond outlined the principles underlying the government’s decision to reduce the number of personnel in the Army from 102,000 to 82,000 by 2020.

While many spat their tea and ground their cigars at the idea of another step away from the days of the Glorious Old Empire, it is worth asking whether today’s strategy is, in fact, more in line with how the nation has always fought its battles than we care to remember.

Historian Sir Basil Liddell Hart once recognised British strategic culture as one of fighting on the periphery, acting as support for a coalition force, rather than as a standalone army. Hammond’s statement appears to follow in these footsteps: “Our planning scenario is that we would not expect to be fighting very prolonged campaigns on the scale of Afghanistan in the future. What we do will mostly be done in collaboration with allies.”

Fighting under the flags of allies is undoubtedly an experience familiar to Britain’s Armed Forces. In that sense, Waterloo and Helmand are the same side of a coin. In the future, Hammond has suggested that Britain will be “looking to others to provide the tail, where Britain is concentrating on providing the teeth.”

This seems to hark back to an era in which Britain intervened in order to maintain the balance of power. The difference is that now, where once Britain provided fiscal and logistical support, it now finds itself doing the opposite, focusing on the spearhead – tactical leadership, aerial support, and, presumably, Special Operations.

An issue with this is that it means that the UK must now rely more upon other nations more than it would like, which could impact its own interests. War is political – to paraphrase Clausewitz – so if the UK is to rely on allies to provide logistical support, what does the government plan to do if its allies decide that they don’t agree with the politics of a conflict? Are we to prepare for a modern day Suez embarrassment?

Perhaps this is an exaggeration. After all, Britain has traditionally been able to project strength beyond its numerical size. As Hammond noted “the UK defence budget is still the fourth largest defence budget in the world. And the British Army will be among the world’s most capable fighting forces, even at 82,000.” This is not to be sniffed at.

What many looking at the statistics fail to take into account is the role the unmanned system will play in modern conflicts. While the number of troops may be falling, the number of UAVs, robots and smart bombs is anything but.

The US is leading the way in this new method of combat. As Peter Singer explains, “it is clear that the American military is getting ready for a battlefield where it sends out fewer humans and more robots.” In which case, it can be argued that it is unrealistic for any nation to think that troop numbers will not fall dramatically in the coming years, and indeed, that this is actually a more preferable model. After all, who wouldn’t opt to put fewer soldiers in the danger zone if there was an equally viable alternative?

If what we are seeing is the beginning of a much broader trend which sees the size of human forces reducing but the total number of fighting units increasing, we are posed with another question: what will the role of the soldier be in future conflicts? Suggestions are welcome.

“We are going to have a smaller force at 82,000,” says Hammond, “but it is going to be a highly equipped force with the very latest personal protection equipment [with] the very best and most technologically advanced platforms.”

If the defence minister’s words are to be believed, along with the growing demand for fewer troops to possess a more varied and specialist skill set, the UK will be investing more heavily in training and soldier survivability than ever before.

Other avenues of focus on small-team-conflict have already revealed themselves in the budget. Cyber defence, for example, is still a hot button, while Close Air Support is firmly back on the agenda. Notably, the new AH-64D Apache Block III attack helicopter has the ability to control UAVs as part of manned-unmanned teaming (MUT).

If we are to take Liddell Hart’s view on British strategic culture it would appear that the reforms of today reflect those of yesteryear, particularly when it comes to multinational tactics. However, globalisation has changed how and why armies fight, and this is in many ways being ushered in by the emergence of new technologies as much as by the fiscal deficit.

Ultimately, Armies must adapt. These reforms may just leave the UK with enough flexibility to carry some clout in the world, whether the old school armchair generals are ready to accept it or not.