Air Weapons: The Missile That Sells Helicopters

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December 15, 2017: In early November South Korea held a live fire exercise off the west coast featuring its newly organized force of AH-64E helicopter gunships. Eight AH-64Es flew sixty kilometers to the coast and then each of them fired at an offshore target using a Hellfire guided missile. This exercise was more for North Korea than anyone else because the 36 South Korea AH-64s began arriving in mid-2016 and were all in service by January 2017. What makes the AH-64 so effective is that it is combat proven, reliable and carries sixteen Hellfire missiles. Each one can be used to destroy individual vehicles (including tanks) or ships (especially the small, fast ones North Korea depends on).

The current Hellfire II weighs 48 kg (106 pounds), carries a 9 kg (20 pound) warhead, and has a range of 8,000 meters. The Hellfire is fast, travelling at about 450 meters a second, meaning that it can hit a target at maximum range in less than 20 seconds. Hellfire is popular for use in urban areas because the small warhead (with only about a kilogram/2.2 pounds of explosives) reduces casualties among nearby civilian (“collateral damage”). Hellfire was introduced in early 1980, shortly before the AH-64 entered service. Both systems were successful and remain in high demand worldwide.

South Korea ordered the AH-64E in 2013 and they arrived a year ahead of schedule because of the growing threat from North Korea. The South Korean AH-64Es are equipped with the new TADS/PNVS (“Arrowhead”) all-weather targeting systems. This cost an extra $6.8 million per helicopter but was considered worth it because South Korean Army aviators had seen Arrowhead in action on U.S. 48 AH-64Es stationed in South Korea and urged adoption of the system because they could see how effective it was along the DMZ, which is hilly and often covered in low clouds or mist. Moreover the Arrowhead system had proved itself during combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. Army began installing Arrowhead in its AH-64s in 2005 after two years of development and testing. Arrowhead uses the latest night vision devices (light enhancement and thermal, or heat, based) and fire control electronics to enable AH-64 crews to operate more safely, and effectively, at lower altitudes and in any weather. This is particularly critical in urban areas, where South Korea expects a lot of combat to take place if the North Koreans manage to get across the border (DMZ).

Work on Arrowhead got a boost after the Iraq invasion in 2003, which was followed by a growing amount of urban fighting. This created the need for an AH-64 that could hover at 800 meters (2,500 feet) altitude (safe from most small arms fire) and use its high resolution sensors to see who was doing what for out to eight kilometers (five miles) away. Arrowhead could do that, and now most American AH-64s have Arrowhead and many transport helicopters as well (to make night flying safer). Whatever an AH-64 can see (or detect via Arrowhead) it can hit with a Hellfire missile.

Arrowhead was a major shift from the previous Longbow fire control system developed in the 1990s. Longbow was designed for the original AH-64 mission: flying at higher altitudes and looking for and destroying distant enemy armored vehicles. The Longbow allowed the AH-64 to go after armored vehicles at night and in bad weather. In the past, potential American enemies practiced moving their armor at night and bad weather, to avoid helicopters armed with long range missiles (like Hellfire or TOW). Longbow was doubly lethal because it was designed to avoid giving away its position when using its radar. AH-64s also had electronic countermeasures. Arrowhead, on the other hand, made night and bad weather deadly for enemy troops thinking they could sneak through urban areas unobserved. Longbow could not spot these guys, but Arrowhead could and did. South Korea had plenty of evidence that North Korean troops trained to use tactics that Arrowhead proved it could handle. The latest AH-64E exercise using Hellfire missiles made it clear that South Korea was now ready to handle North Korean gunboats and high speed hovercraft North Korea had stationed on the west coast for landing commandos.

Both American and South Korean forces are using the latest version of the AH-64. This model was originally designated the AH-64D Block III. But the changes proved to be so extensive that the name was changed to AH-64E. The E version had its first flight in 2008 entered service in 2011. The U.S. Army decided to upgrade all 634 of its AH-64s to the new E standard, a process that won't be completed until 2020.

The E version had a lot of improvements. One of the notable ones is a more powerful and fuel efficient engine, as well as much improved electronics. This includes Internet like capabilities with other aircraft and ground troops. The E version is able to control several UAVs and launch missiles at targets spotted by its UAVs. The E version radar has longer range and onboard computers are much more powerful. The electronics are easier to upgrade and maintain. The combination of Longbow, Arrowhead, and Internet capabilities greatly increased the capabilities of the AH-64. That and all the combat experience it gained after 2001 made it the most popular helicopter gunship design and nations that could afford to (and were on good terms with the U.S.) ordered the AH-64 or the Arrowhead upgrades.

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. Sorties average 90 minutes but can be extended to three hours or more by replacing weapons with fuel tanks. Most of the existing 1,100 AH-64s (American and foreign) will eventually be upgraded to the E standard. AH-64Es can fly several sorties a day, for at least a few days. This is the kind of weapon North Korea fears most and the South Koreans are trying to keep their new AH-64s safe from North Korea artillery or commando attack on the first day of any war.

 


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