Warplanes: March 27, 2003


The U.S. Army has over 700 Apache (AH-64) helicopter gunships in service. Costing some $15 million each, the ten ton aircraft basically provide the kind of close air support the U.S. Air Force has been backing away from for decades. Unlike jet fighters, the Apache only has a max speed of 360 kilometers an hour. But usual speed is much slower, from the cruising speed of about 280 kilometers an hour to a dead stop, while still in the air. The Apache is a Cold War era weapon, designed in the 1970s for seeking out and killing armored vehicles on the battlefield. It has been good at that and carries up to 16 Hellfire missiles and a 30mm automatic (ten rounds a second) cannon with 1200 rounds of armor piercing ammo. The Apaches are operated by a pilot and weapons systems operator. About 300 of the army's Apache's are equipped with the Longbow radar and sensor equipment that enables the gunship to find and attack ground targets at night and in bad weather. Entering service in the early 1980s, the Apache did an excellent job during the 1991 Gulf War. But maintenance problems and insufficient training time in the 1990s made many wonder if the Apache would be able to maintain it's reputation. Complicating all this was the introduction, in 1998, of the all weather Longbow equipped Apache (AH-64D). This now meant that crews had to train for day, and night, operations. But the new AH-64D was easier to fly and new simulators provided a lot more realistic "flying time." The army appears to have put nearly 200 Apaches into the Iraq campaign and is using them aggressively. This follows up on the aggressive use of a handful of Apaches during the Afghanistan campaign. But aggressiveness, while common among Apache pilots, can present problems. Although the Hellfire can hit targets ten kilometers (usually closer to six) away, and the 30mm gun can destroy vehicles 1500 meters away, the targets are often found in the midst of other enemy combat vehicles and troops. The Apaches come in low, often a few feet off the ground, and use terrain to hide behind. But in flat terrain, as in Iraq, there are few places to hide and many nearby enemy troops who can get a shot at the chopper. While the Apache has lightweight armor for the crew and some key systems, there are many parts of the Apache that can suffer serious damage from just one bullet (or "the golden BB," as pilots call it.) When dozens of Apaches were unleashed against Iraqi Republican Guard units south of Baghdad, one Apache came down (in one piece) and many others returned with bullet damage. In a way, Apaches are like the infantry. They can get in close and do enormous damage, but they are very vulnerable to taking a lot of damage while doing it.


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