Warplanes: Taiwan Apaches

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August 3, 2018: In July 2018 Taiwan declared its 29 AH-64E helicopter gunships, and the units they belonged to, combat ready. This comes seven years after the United States finally agreed to make the sale (despite pressure from China not to do it) and a decade after Taiwan realized it would have to retire or extensively and expensively refurbish its 61 elderly AH-1W gunships. It took so long to get the AH-64 force combat ready because Taiwan had never used the AH-64 before and the AH-64E was a far more complex and capable gunship than the decades-old AG-1W. Taiwan established a 19-month training course for AH-64E pilots plus even more training for combat operations.

Early on Taiwan learned that the unique atmospheric conditions found in Taiwan required attention as well. This lesson was learned early on when Taiwan lost one of its AH-64Es seven months after the first ones arrived in late 2013. At that point, Taiwan had some AH-64 pilots who had been trained in the U.S. and were able to report what happened. The AH-64E was lost (the crew survived) because the helicopter encountered one of the unique (and disorienting) weather conditions found in Taiwan. The accident report described the accident as the result of unexpected weather and human error. The crash was the result of the AH-64E encountering a rapid change in the weather that resulted in the helicopter, moving along at an altitude of about 40 meters, suddenly enveloped in a rapidly falling cloud ceiling. The pilot should have immediately switched to flying via instruments, but he did not, became disoriented and flew into a nearby building. As a result of this Taiwanese AH-64E crews received more training for situations like, especially since rapid changes in cloud cover are not rare events in some parts of Taiwan. The new AH-64E pilots now receive through training on all the unique (and potentially dangerous) flying conditions that can be encountered (and often taken advantage of in combat) on the island.

In late 2013 Taiwan received the first six (of thirty) AH-64Es. Taiwan had first asked to buy AH-64s in 2001 and was turned down, so as not to annoy China. The 2011 agreement came after three years of further negotiations and delays created by Chinese interference. All thirty AH-64s arrived by the end of 2014.

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 cruising speed of 260 kilometers an hour. Many more of the existing 1,100 AH-64s (American and foreign) were upgraded to the E standard. In 2012, the U.S. Army began receiving the first production models of the AH-64E (originally the AH-64D Block III). This was the latest version of the AH-64, which had its first flight in 1975 and numerous upgrades since. 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.

AH-64Es have more powerful and fuel-efficient engines, as well as the much-improved electronics. AH-64Es also have Internet-like capabilities, enabling these gunships to quickly exchange images, video, and so on with other aircraft and ground troops. AH-64Es can control several UAVs and launch missiles at targets spotted by these UAVs. The AH-64E radar has longer range and onboard computers are much more powerful. The electronics are easier to upgrade and maintain. The combination of improved fire control and Internet capabilities greatly increased the capabilities of the AH-64. By the end of the decade, 634 U.S. Army AH-64s will be upgraded to the E standard.

The AH-64A was the initial model, entering service in 1986. The last AH-64A was taken out of service in 2012, so it could be upgraded to the AH-64D standard. The AH-64B was an upgrade proposed for the early 1990s but was canceled, as was a similar “C” model upgrade. Some of these canceled 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 in 2002. By 2006, over 500 American AH-64As had been upgraded to AH-64Ds.

The U.S. Army has over 700 Apache (AH-64) helicopter gunships in service, out of about 1,200 built. This helicopter 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 290 kilometers an hour. 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. Over the last decade, the AH-64 has evolved into a powerful weapon against irregular forces (in Iraq and Afghanistan).

 


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