The U.S. Marine Corps has declared its new AH-1Z attack helicopter operational, and will be sending the first of them to Afghanistan later this year. For the last five years, the marines have been working on this new aircraft. Basically, the AH-1Z is created by remanufacturing older AH-1T/W attack helicopters into AH-1Z models. This produces a helicopter with a 10,000 hours (in the air) airframe, new engines, new electronics and an updated and much more effective gunship. There have been some problems with the fire control system (which is, when it works, similar to what the latest AH-64s have), that caused some delays. However, the marines were able to catch up, and the AH-1Z kept to its scheduled entry into service this year. The marines plan to have 189 AH-1Zs by 2020. This will include 131 remanufactured AH-1Ws and 58 AH-1Zs that will be manufactured new.
The seven ton AH-1W is an upgrade of the Vietnam era AH-1. The new model was configured for naval use, and has two engines and protection against sea water corrosion. Most of these aircraft were originally manufactured in the 1970's, with some 44 AH-1W models built in the 1980's. The goal of the AH-1Z program was not only to deliver a much more capable aircraft, but also to have an 84 percent commonality of parts with the updated UH-1 transport helicopter that the marines also use, thus greatly reducing maintenance costs.
The AH-1Z "Viper" model upgrade will give the aircraft a new 4 bladed composite rotor system, transmission, strengthened structural components, and modern digital cockpit avionics. The 8 ton AH-1Z is armed with a three barrel 20mm Gatling gun (and 750 rounds) and eight Hellfire missiles. It can also carry two Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. The AH-1Z can operate around the clock, in all kinds of weather. Sorties last about two hours each and cruising speed is 248 kilometers an hour.