Warplanes: Apache Blues

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April 14, 2007: The U.S. Army has ordered another 18 AH-64D helicopter gunships, for $15.4 million each. This the AH-64D "Longbow" version of the Apache. This version comes with a radar based fire control system that enables it to spot armored vehicles, or stationary targets, in any weather, and up to ten kilometers away, and destroy them with Hellfire missiles (max range, eight kilometers). While a great concept, and well implemented, it has lacked opportunity to strut its stuff.

The D model was introduced in the late 1990s, a late Cold War concept that took a while to perfect. It was a most effective weapon for destroying enemy tanks at long range. The AH-64D got some use during the 2003 Iraq invasion, but since then, the Longbow radar has not gotten much of a workout. The radar system has not been much use for firing Hellfires at targets in residential areas, because a visual, not radar, picture of the target is preferred. Moreover, the radar system weighs 500 pounds (about three percent of the weight of a fully loaded AH-64D). In Afghanistan, where the AH-64s fly at high altitudes, where the thin air means less lift, losing three percent of your weight by removing the radar is useful. In Iraq, the high heat, and abundant dust, makes the Longbow electronics more prone to breakdown.

The army has been taking the Longbow gear (two black boxes and the radar dome) off some of their AH-64Ds. This enables the helicopters to stay out a little longer, and be a bit more maneuverable at higher altitudes. In Iraq (and Afghanistan), it's one less maintenance headache for the support crews.

Meanwhile, a new version of the Longbow will weigh only 400 pounds, and have more reliable, and easier to maintain, electronics. Against an enemy using lots of armored vehicles, the AH-64D, with its radar and a full load of 16 Hellfire missiles, is one of the more lethal anti-tank systems around. But it's less of a threat to urban gunmen.

Currently, the army has upgraded older AH-64s to have the Longbow system, and all newly built AH-64s will as well. Currently, 96 AH-64Ds are on order. The Apache has proved itself very useful on the battlefield, although operating at low altitudes means these aircraft get hit by a lot of gunfire.

 


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