Warplanes: Much Delayed Apaches For South Korea


May 12, 2013: After deliberating for nearly a decade, South Korea has finally agreed to purchase 36 U.S. AH-64E Apache helicopter gunships. A lot of the opposition was because of price. So five years ago the U.S. offered South Korea 36 refurbished AH-64s, rebuilt to like-new condition, for about $23 million each. That was a nearly 60 percent discount off the then current price of new ones. These helicopters would have a useful life of about 10,000 hours in the air.

That was not sufficiently tempting and politicians insisted on a thorough study of alternatives (the American AH-1Z and the Italian A-129 via Turkey, which is building them under license). That resulted in South Koreans deciding on new AH-64s at a cost of about $45 million each (including spare parts, training, and tech support).

The main impetus for this decision is the impressive combat record of the AH-64 and the fact that this led to several very effective upgrades. The current version, which South Korea is getting, is an all-weather aircraft that is particularly effective at night. This makes the AH-64 well suited for hunting down and killing the thousands of commandos North Korea plans to try and get into South Korea early in any war.

The U.S. Army has over 700 Apache (AH-64) helicopter gunships in service, out of about 1,200 built. The ten ton aircraft basically provides the close air support, and so far all those built have spent more than three million hours in the air. 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 average sortie for an AH-64 lasts about 90 minutes, when just using internal fuel (that can be tripled with the maximum of four external tanks). Typically, AH-64s in combat will fly up to half a dozen sorties a day, often taking on additional ammo when they land to refuel.

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. Over the last decade the AH-64 has evolved into a powerful weapon against irregular forces (in Iraq and Afghanistan).

Last year the U.S. Army began receiving the first production models of the AH-64D Block III. This was soon renamed the AH-64E. This is the latest version of the AH-64, which had its first flight 38 years ago. It was decided that the Block III improvements were so numerous and dramatic that it made more sense to go to a simpler and more descriptive AH-64E designation.

The AH-64A was the initial model, entering service in 1986. The last AH-64A was taken out of service earlier this year for upgrade to the AH-64D standard. The AH-64B was an upgrade proposed for the early 1990s, but was cancelled, as was a similar “C” model upgrade. Some of these cancelled improvements were in great demand but were delayed because of budget cuts after the Cold War ended in 1991. Thus the “B” and “C” model upgrades were incorporated in the AH-64D Block I (1997). The AH-64D Longbow (because of the radar mast, making it possible to see ground targets and flying obstacles in all weather) models began appearing five years later. By 2006, over 500 American AH-64As had been upgraded to AH-64Ds.

By the end of the decade, 634 army AH-64s will be upgraded to the new AH-64E standard. The first AH-64Es are entering service now and will be heavily used to reveal any design or manufacturing flaws. These will be fixed before mass production and conversion begins.

AH-64Es have more powerful and fuel efficient engines, as well as much improved electronics. AH-64Es will also have Internet like capabilities, enabling these gunships to quickly exchange images, video, and so on with other aircraft and ground troops. AH-64Es will be able to control several UAVs and launch missiles at targets spotted by these UAVs. The AH-64E III radar will have longer range and on-board computers will be much more powerful. The electronics will be easier to upgrade and maintain. The combination of improved fire control and Internet capabilities is expected to greatly increase the capabilities of the AH-64.

The 10 ton AH-64E carries a pilot and a weapons officer, as well as about a ton of weapons. The AH-64 can operate at night and has a top speed of 260 kilometers an hour. Many more of the existing 1,100 AH-64s (American and foreign) may be upgraded to the E standard as well.