AH-64 Apache has long been regarded as the world’s best attack helicopter line based on a combination of criteria. High maneuverability, ultra-modern electronic system, large destructive arsenal, full combat experiences, AH-64 has surpassed other competitors in the world to become the most terrifying attack helicopter on the planet.
Interestingly enough, the high-tech mode doesn’t seem so high-tech, when one looks back at the AH-56 Cheyenne, which first flew in 1967. Derived from the Army’s Advanced Aerial Fire Support System program, which ultimately ended in only ten being built. Advanced before its time, the Cheyenne was an impressive helicopter that was limited only by the technology of the era. Following the cancellation of the AH-56 Cheyenne in 1972, the development of AH-64 Apache has seemingly come full-circle. In addition to powerplant and control changes, the weapons “wings” and 30mm chain gun have also undergone changes.
The Apache’s origins date back to the United States withdrawal from the Vietnam War, as the Army turned its attention back to the huge mechanized armies of the Warsaw Pact. Helicopter gunships had proven highly useful in Vietnam for delivering precise strikes and loitering air support, but relatively lightly-armed Viet Cong had shot down hundreds of them. The Red Army mustered heavier anti-aircraft defenses and huge tank armies that would not be phased by miniguns and anti-personnel rockets.
Seeking a helicopter fit to tackle Soviet tank division, the Army ultimately had to choose between the Bell YAH-63, which resembled a stretched-out Cobra, and the McDonnell-Douglas YAH-64. Disliking the former’s tricycle landing gear and two-shaft rotor, the Army selected the YAH-64 in 1976. Per custom, permission was obtained from Apache elders to name the helicopter after the Native American tribe.
The Apache began as the Model 77 developed by Hughes Helicopters for the United States Army’s Advanced Attack Helicopter program to replace the AH-1 Cobra. The prototype YAH-64 was first flown on 30 September 1975. After purchasing Hughes Helicopters in 1984, McDonnell Douglas continued AH-64 production and development. The helicopter was introduced to U.S. Army service in April 1986. The advanced AH-64D Apache Longbow was delivered to the Army in March 1997. Production has been continued by Boeing Defense, Space & Security, with over 2,000 AH-64s being produced by 2013.
The AH-64 is an aggressive-looking helicopter seating two in tandem, with a semi-monocoque fuselage of narrow cross-section. The copilot or gunner sits in the rear seat, which is raised and has good all-round visibility. Both crew members are capable of flying the aircraft and performing methods of weapon engagements independently. The crew compartment has shielding between the cockpits, such that at least one crew member can survive hits. The compartment and the rotor blades are designed to sustain a hit from 23-millimeter rounds. The airframe includes some 1,100 kg of protection and has a self-sealing fuel system to protect against ballistic projectiles. The helicopter has a four-blade main rotor. The tail unit, which was modified during the aircraft’s second development phase, includes an all-moving tail plane positioned slightly above the tail boom and a vertical fin to replace the earlier T-tail of the prototype. The tailwheel landing gear is fixed.
The two 1690 shaft horsepower General Electric T700-GE-701 turbines are mounted on either side of the fuselage, behind the rotor transmission, in two separate nacelles. The engine allowing speeds of 182 miles per hour, a service ceiling of 21,000 feet, and an endurance of 150 minutes. Despite weighing nearly nine tons loaded, the Apache proved exceptionally agile, capable of pulling off barrel rolls and loops.
The Apache’s stub wings each mount two pylons typically carrying a mix of pods carrying nineteen 2.75-inch rockets for use against personnel and light vehicles, and quad-racks of AGM-114 Hellfire anti-tank missiles.
In Vietnam, AH-1 Cobra gunships had successfully picked off North Vietnamese tanks with wire-guided TOW missiles. But these required the helicopter to hover exposed for a half-minute or longer as the gunner piloted the missile to the target—a potentially suicidal tactic in a high-intensity conflict. The one-hundred-pound Hellfire was laser-guided, and traveled at supersonic speeds, meaning the operator only had to paint its target with a laser for ten seconds or less. This allowed Apaches to hover low behind terrain, perform a popup-Hellfire attack, and then duck back behind cover.
For precisely strafing personnel targets lightly armored vehicles, the Apache mounts a hydraulically-operated M230 “Chain Gun” under its chin which can rattle out five to ten 30-millimeter high-explosive dual-purpose shells per second, with 1,200 M789 shells carried in a looping feed mechanism.
With the advancement of sensors, the nose of the aircraft holds a staggering array of detection, target acquisition, and target tracking capabilities. One of the revolutionary features of the Apache was its helmet mounted display, the Integrated Helmet and Display Sighting System; among its capabilities, either the pilot or gunner can slave the helicopter’s 30 mm automatic M230 Chain Gun to their helmet, making the gun track head movements to point where they look.
The AH-64A entered service in 1986, with 821 eventually delivered through 1996. These initially imposed heavy new maintenance demands on Army mechanics. The U.S. Army is the primary operator of the AH-64. It has also become the primary attack helicopter of multiple nations, including Greece, Japan, Israel, the Netherlands, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates. It has been built under license in the United Kingdom as the AgustaWestland Apache. American AH-64s have served in conflicts in Panama, the Persian Gulf, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Israel used the Apache in its military conflicts in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. British and Dutch Apaches have seen deployments in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
First seeing action at night during the 1989 U.S. intervention in Panama, only two years later in the Gulf War did the Apache’s capabilities truly became evident. The 278 AH-64As deployed destroyed 500 armored vehicles for the loss of just one chopper to a rocket propelled grenade.
AH-64 helicopters have many variants, the most well-known model is the AH-64D. The AH-64D is a highly modernized model with color digital flight displays, modem-based datalinks, and a new GPS and doppler radar navigation systems. The most innovative on the AH-64D model was an optional drum-shaped APG-78 “Longbow” radome on a mast atop the Apache’s rotor, used to target the radar-guided AGM-114L missiles up to five miles away.
The AH-64E attack helicopter is the latest version of the AH-64, used by the US Army. It is also known as Apache Guardian. Until 2012 it was designated as AH-64D Block III. It has a number of improvements and upgrades, including more powerful engines, upgraded transmission and other improvements. This gunship might be also fitted with updated Longbow fire control radar. The US Army plan to upgrade a total of 634 AH-64D helicopters to AH-64E standard. It is planned that another 56 helicopters will be newly built. Deliveries to the US Army began in 2011. This attack helicopter has been approved for export. Export operators are Saudi Arabia and Taiwan. This helicopter has been ordered by other countries. India ordered 22 of these gunships, Indonesia 8, Qatar 24, South Korea 36, and the United Arab Emirates 30. In 2014 Iraq ordered 24 of these helicopters, but later cancelled this order. In 2015 the United Kingdom has requested to remanufacture 50 of its WAH-64D Apache Longbow helicopters of this latest AH-64E standard.
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Following the retirement of OH-58D Kiowa scout helicopters, AH-64Es have been pressed into reconnaissance units, controversially sourced at the expense of National Guard units. However, the heavy attack helicopters have not proven a great fit for the scouting role, so a dedicated scout helicopter is being sought to replace them.As short-range air-defense systems grow increasingly deadly, and attack helicopters more costly, the survivability of even the Apache on twenty-first century battlefields remains open to question. However, the attack helicopter’s ability to ferret out and battlefield targets and hammer them with precision missiles remains highly valued. Therefore, the Army plans to keep flying Apaches into the 2040s, by which time a new generation of “Future Vertical Lift” choppers may eventually assume their mantle.