The U.S. Army has a growing number of elderly AH-64 helicopter gunships that are too old to upgrade but still contain a lot of components still have years of life left in them. It has been customary to cannibalize damaged but unrepairable AH-64s for needed parts, but the new recycling program is much more thorough and takes advantage of the fact that a lot more AH-64s are approaching old age and available to disassemble rather than just cutting up for scrap after taking easily removable components for reuse.
For some reason the army calls this process “depopulation.” The army is looking for a qualified contractor who can do this on a large scale; disassembling AH-64s and preserving components on 3-7 helicopters a month for 60 months starting in early 2022 and continuing to the end of 2027. The success of this recycling/depopulation depends on the cost per helicopter. That cost would depend on a number of factors including how long it takes to get enough useful parts off the helicopter and how much money that will save versus purchasing new parts. Army aviation officials already did their own analysis based on the experience of AH-64 maintainers getting needed components off a damaged or grounded (for age or the expense of getting the aircraft flyable) AH-64s. A contractor has to be able do this at a price that makes it worthwhile.
This is not the first time a lot of elderly AH-64s were retired. This usually comes after the aircraft has undergone one or more major upgrades, which includes replacing or repairing worn parts. For example, the last AH-64A was taken out of service in 2012 for an upgrade to the AH-64D standard. At that point there were still a lot of AH-64As less than twenty years old. It’s common for AH-64s to serve for over two decades, in part because of the upgrades and lots of replacement parts, especially engines and new electronics.
Nearly all these AH-64A/D helicopters have been retired by now and a lot of early model AH-64Ds will soon be too old to keep flying. The AH-64 went from the A to D model because of post-Cold War politics. 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. 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 and now some of those older 64Ds have been upgraded to 64Es.
The AH-64 is still in production and as of mid-2020 2,500 have been built. The 937 AH-64As built between 1983 and 1997 are all gone but most of the thousand AH-64Ds built from 1997 to 2011 are still around, as are the 500 AH-64Es built since 2011. Another factor here is the AH-64 successor, which is expected to replace half the existing U.S. Army AH-64Es. The successor helicopter gunship is supposed to enter service in 2028. There have been several failed attempts to design and produce a new helicopter gunship. The current candidate is FARA (Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft), which is a 6 or 7-ton gunship that is intended to replace the retired (in 2017) 2.5 ton OH-58 armed scout helicopter. Billions of dollars were wasted on three earlier replacement efforts. All these died from escalating budgets and performance shortcomings. To justify the additional size, weight and expense of FARA, half the 11-ton AH-64Es will be replaced by the new gunship. But only if FARA can succeed where the three previous efforts failed. Stay tuned for a surprising success or more desperate and inventive excuses.
The army recently completed upgrading AH-64Ds to the E standard and nearly all the 800 army AH-64s are the E model. All army AH-64Es are receiving another major upgrade as are a growing number of export customers. In late 2020 the U.S. Army begins updating its AH-64E Apache helicopter gunship hardware and software to what is called Version 6. This is a significant upgrade because it makes the AH-64E more effective against sea-going targets. Since the 1990s the AH-64 has become increasingly popular as a naval weapon, often operating from aircraft carriers or the helicopter pads of smaller warships, in addition to helping patrol and guard coastal waters when based close to the water.
Even before the latest update, the AH-64 was built to handle salt-water conditions via anti-corrosive components, especially the rotor blades. Version 6 items include changes for naval users to the radar and fire control. The radar now takes into account the sea state (how rough the seas are) to obtain more accurate detection and identification of ships and display that information as a unique icon on the multifunction flat-screen displays in the cockpit. Detection range of that radar has been increased from eight to 16 kilometers. This makes the AH-64E more useful for users in the Persian Gulf and off the coast of Korea where swarms of small armed boats are a danger. Version 6 optimizes the AH-64E fire control system for detecting, identifying and attacking such small boats. Another popular Version 6 feature is improvements to the engine and the rotors. Still on the to-do list are requests for changes in the rotor folding capability that allow rotors to be folded and unfolded more quickly for storage on ships.
The AH-64E is the latest iteration of a gunship originally designed as a tank buster, but has since become very effective against other types of targets. First, the AH-64 was modified after 2001 to be more effective against lightly armed ground troops, especially irregulars like Islamic terrorists. The last several upgrades have made the AH-64 a potent naval weapon.
The AH-64 is a heavily armed and armored attack helicopter with a maximum takeoff weight of 11.5 tons and a top speed of 279 kilometers per hour. Initially, the AH-64E had new features including the improved Longbow fire control radar and the capability to cooperate with UAVs. The AH-64E can carry up to 16 Hellfire missiles or 38 smaller APKWS missiles in addition to a 30 mm M230 autocannon. Both missiles are laser-guided and have a max range of eight kilometers. A pair of Stinger air-to-air heat-seeking missiles often often carried as well for use against enemy helicopters or, in desperate situations, low flying fighter aircraft.
The export sales are particularly valuable because they usually include a stock of spare parts, including replacement engines, the AN/ASQ-170 target acquisition systems, Pilot Night Vision Sensors, Fire Control Radars and other electronics plus related equipment, support, training, and logistics. Also ordered are weapons, mainly ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles) like Hellfire and (since 2015) the smaller APKWS ATGM and some unguided 70mm Hydra rockets (which APKWS is based on) as well. Less frequently some AIM-92H Stinger air-to-air missiles are purchased as well.
The U.S. Army began receiving the AH-64E in 2011 and mass production began in 2012. AH-64E had its first flight in 2008. Initially, the AH-64E was called the AH-64D Block III but the upgrades were so extensive it was decided to call it the AH-64E. Among the 64E upgrades are more powerful and fuel-efficient engines, as well as 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 will be able to 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 increase the capabilities of the AH-64.