AH-64 Apache: Unleashing Overwhelming Firepower – A Legacy of 4 Million Flight Hours and Counting
The AH-64, designated ‘Apache’ by the US Army in line with their tradition of naming their choppers after Native Indian tribes, is an attack helicopter that has clocked over 4 million flight hours since the first prototype was flown in 1975.
Since its combat debut during the US invasion of Panama in 1990, the AH-64 has served on battlefields across the planet, from the dry scrublands of Djibouti to the mountainous forests of Bosnia. Even today it remains a leading member of air forces all around the globe, who prize it for its flexibility and lethality.
With the cancellation of the AH-56 Cheyenne in 1972, the United States Army looked to fill the gap with a helicopter that could act in a similar anti-armor attack role.
Being at the height of the Cold War, policymakers also stressed the importance of having a chopper that could mount an adequate defense against the Russians if they decided to send thousands of their tanks across the German border.
The AH-64 was to be superior in every way to the battle-hardened AH-1 Cobra which had served admirably in Vietnam and was to eclipse it in firepower, performance, and the elimination of tanks at range.
In addition, due to the advent of the deadly Strelta 2 shoulder launched SAM invented by the Soviets, the Apache was to be better at carrying out ‘nap-of-the-earth’ operations, a maneuver in which the helicopter flew very close to the ground to avoid anti-aircraft missiles.
In November 1972, the US Army issued a request for an Advanced Attack Helicopter (AAH), designating the project as one of its ‘Big Five’ programs in September 1973.
Answering the call were Bell, Boeing, Vertol/Grumman, Hughes, Lockheed, and Sikorsky, all of who submitted concept designs to be judged by a panel of experts from the US Department of Defense.
In July 1973, they announced that Bell and Hughes were the finalists that were to compete against each other for the AAH contract. In phase one of the competition, both manufacturers produced prototypes that were to enter a flight test program to determine the winner.
On September 30th, 1975 Hughes’ Model 77/YAH-64A flew for the first time, and this was followed shortly after by Bell’s Model 409/YAH-63A which undertook its inaugural flight on October 1st.
In 1976, it was revealed that Hughes’ YAH-64A was victorious. Evaluators were impressed by its more damage-resistant four-blade main rotor and disappointed with the instability of the YAH-63A’s landing gear.
During phase two, Hughes built 3 pre-production AH-64s and upgraded its 2 YAH-64 prototypes to the same standards. Weapons and sensor systems, including the fearsome AGM-114 Hellfire missile developed throughout the 1970s, which was built specifically to be launched from a helicopter, were also tested.
In 1981, Hughes finished their 3 models and gave them to the US Army to be assessed for Operational Test II, where they were considered a success.
The only required change was to the engine, which was to be updated to the higher-performing T700-GE-701 engine for full-scale production, approved in 1982.
The first AH-64 unit was completed in 1983 at Hughes’ Helicopter Facility in Mesa, Arizona, for a cost of 13.9 million dollars. The next year, Hughes was bought by McDonnell Douglas, who throughout the mid-1980s focused efforts on improving the designs of their newly-acquired flagship attack helicopter, which they re-designated AH-64B.
This revamped edition of the AH-64 featured a better cockpit and was installed with the latest digital systems overseeing fire control, sensor, and avionics.
However, the refurbishment was soon cancelled and replaced with the AH-64D Apache Longbow program in August 1990, as McDonnell McDouglas set out to create an even more ambitious version.
From April 1992 to April 1995, the analysis indicated that the AH-64D was superior in every way to the AH-64A. As a result, the AH-64D began assembly in October 1995, followed by the signing of a contract worth 1.9 billion dollars in August 1996 permitting 232 existing AH-64As to be converted into the ‘D’ variant.
The AH-64 Apache has a length of 48.16 feet, a height of 15.49 feet, a maximum operating weight of 23,000Ibs, and a four-bladed tail rotor and main rotor, which has a diameter of 48 feet.
It is manned by a pilot and co-pilot, who also acts as a gunner, The 2 crew members are separated by a shield in the cockpit to ensure that one survives if they are hit by an enemy projectile.
In fact, the compartment and blades are engineered in such a way that they can sustain hits from 23×52 mm rounds, and similarly, the airframe and fuel tanks, which are self-sealing, are designed to protect its operators against the ruinous effects of ballistic strikes.
The AH-64 is propelled by twin General Electric T700 turboshaft engines, whose exhausts are mounted high-up on both sides of the fuselage, which give it a top speed of over 173 miles per hour, a maximum climb rate of 2800 feet per minute, and an altitude ceiling of up to 20,000 feet.
Furthermore, the AH-64 is fitted with 16 AGM-114 Hellfire anti-tank missiles, Hydra-70 general-purpose unguided rockets, and a 30-mm M230E1 Chain Gun which can unleash 600-650 rounds per minute.
It is installed with the groundbreaking Integrated Helmet and Display Sighting System enabling the pilot to control the direction of the chain-gun using only his helmet, which moves wherever he looks. Alternatively, the M230E1 can also be fixed to a locked forward firing position.
It also possesses a Target Acquisition and Designation System (TADS) which helps the pilot to operate guns in poor weather conditions and a Pilot Night Vision System (PNVS) which gives the operator the ability to see in the dark.
After a 2005 deal, a more advanced TADS/PNVS called Arrowhead from Lockheed-Martin began to be installed into all AH-64s.
The AH-64 additionally features multi-purpose stub-wing pylons with mounted points which can assist with ground maintenance, can harness extra personnel to the wings during transport, and can be fitted with external fuel tanks for greater mission length.
US Operational History
The AH-64 first served the US Army in September 1987, when a fleet of 67 participated in joint military exercises in Europe. It made its combat debut during the invasion of Panama in 1990 for Operation Just Cause, operating for over 240 hours of nighttime missions.
Working alongside other aircraft such as the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt and the McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier, It was praised for its ability to strike deep into enemy territory well beyond the frontlines of US troops.
In 1990, over half of all US Apaches were redeployed to Iraq for Operation Desert Storm during the Gulf War, with the other half grounded to provide a sizable supply of spare parts. 8 AH-64s took part in the USA’s opening sortie, destroying a significant portion of their radar networks, allowing follow-up attack aircraft to fly in without being detected.
A total of 277 Apaches partook in the conflict, destroying 500 tanks and armored vehicles during the 100 hour ground war at a loss of just one helicopter.
24 AH-64s were notably less successful in Kosovo between 1992 and 1995, with 26,000 tons of supporting equipment transported to their ground base in Albania at a cost of 480 million dollars. In April 1999, the crash of an AH-64 compelled generals to ground the entire fleet in December 2000 amid safety concerns.
As a result, no missions were flown for the entirety of the war, with the US Army lambasted for its failure to adequately train personnel and address maintenance problems. It would prompt a seething front-page article by the Washington Post:
“The vaunted helicopters came to symbolise everything wrong with the Army as it enters the 21st century: Its inability to move quickly, its resistance to change, its obsession with casualties, its post-Cold War identity crisis.”
In 2003, the AH-64s also served ineffectively in the invasion of Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom not because of any mechanical or training errors, but because of the inefficiencies of the USA’s command structure.
Fighting in small teams, the AH-64s were limited because of lengthy discussions with micromanaging senior officers who preferred to bestow less autonomy on their units.
In addition, Iraqi soldiers were able to develop their own countermeasures during this time. In one incident, Iraqi tank crews set up a ‘flak trap,’ which involved goading AH-64s tasked with rescuing soldiers into a kill zone.
In a disaster of an operation, a total of 31 AH-64s were damaged and one captured as a result, with Iraqi officials even claiming that one was taken out by a farmer shooting a Brno rifle.
US Apaches also served in Afghanistan from 2001 as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, where they were subject to intense early fighting, being the only craft that could suitably provide close air support because of the difficult local terrain.
By 2009, 12 AH-64s had been destroyed, including one that was downed by a Strela 2 SAM in 2006.
More recently, the US government sent 20 Apaches to Latvia on February 24th, 2022, hours after Russia invaded Ukraine.
International Operational History
The AH-64 has also prominently featured in the military operations of nations outside the USA.
The Israeli Air Force received their first batch of AH-64As in 1990, and in 2005 their first AH-64D was delivered by Boeing. They saw intense combat during the 1990s push to destroy Hezbollah outposts in Lebanon and were used from 2000 to bomb enemy leaders.
In 2004, Hamas chief Ahmed Yassin and his bodyguards were assassinated using a Hellfire missile, which also collaterally killed 9 innocent bystanders. Another civilian, flying a privately registered Cessna 153, was also shot down in 2001 after accidentally passing into Israeli airspace.
Saudi Arabia is another major customer as well, purchasing their first 12 Apaches in the aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991. They were subsequently sent to their southern border in 2009 to stop the incursions of Houthi rebels from neighboring Yemen.
Elsewhere, the UK military operates a modified version of the Apache called the Westland WAH-64 Apache, which is fitted with more powerful Rolls-Royce engines as well as a folding blade assembly that allows it to take off from Royal Navy warships.
The Netherlands’ version of the Apache, which has served in Djibouti, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, is also different and is equipped with an Apache Modular Aircraft Survivability Equipment (AMASE) system that can safeguard against incoming infra-red missiles.
AH-64s can also be found in the military arsenals of Egypt, Greece, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Kuwait, Qatar, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates.
Boeing’s factory in Hyderabad, India, currently supplies the fuselages of the sixth iteration of the Apache, the AH-64E.
It boasts enhanced sensors, software, and weapons performance, and is planned to be in production until at least 2028, and is forecasted to remain a staple of military forces around the world well into the 2060s.