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On 11 July 2016, the Ministry of Defence committed to spending $2.3 billion on completely replacing the UK’s fleet of 66 Apache AH-1 helicopters (AH-64D equivalent) with 50 AH-64E Apache Guardian airframes bought through the foreign military sales (FMS) framework and manufactured by Boeing in the US. Deliveries will commence in 2022 and will replace the existing AH-1 airframes in front line service until roughly 2024 when the full fleet transition is expected to be complete. The decision to have the new Apache fleet remanufactured to US 'off the shelf' standards by Boeing instead of paying extra to have them remanufactured to UK-specific standards under licence by AgustaWestland (now part of Leonardo) is likely to result in a cheaper per unit cost for the UK. However, rather than examining the industrial case again, this article will look at how the AH-64E can improve on the capabilities of the AH-1 and what that could mean for British Army Air Corps operations as part of Joint Helicopter Command in the 2020s and beyond.
The AH-64D Apache Longbow, modified to British AH-1 standard, proved itself as a vital UK combat asset in Afghanistan and as an interdiction capability over Libya from HMS Ocean in 2011. However, this operation tempo has created a situation where the airframe fatigue limits on the current fleet cannot fulfil the British Army's current requirement for a 2040 out of service date. The most immediate benefit of this week’s deal is to extend the UK’s Apache capability well beyond the limited remaining lifespan of the legacy AH-1 fleet – and likely at least until 2040. The new AH-64E standard also promises significantly reduced operating costs owing to the incorporation of more fuel efficient engines, a fully digital cockpit, as well as reduced vibration and increased blade lifespan thanks to the new composite rotors. Furthermore, the UK will be able to draw on a global supply chain for its new Apache fleet – with all the benefits in terms of availability and economies of scale which that implies – since its AH-64Es will be almost identical to those being flown by the US Army and other international customers. This will enable the British Army to either reduce operational costs for the Apache fleet compared with their current level or perform more missions at higher readiness levels on the same budget as before. Either way, UK defence capability as a whole will see benefits from this approach.
Aside from more significant incremental performance and efficiency improvements, the AH-64E offers many new features compared with earlier variants of the Apache. Fundamentally, the AH-1 is a traditional attack helicopter which locates, tracks and prosecutes its own targets, and relies predominantly on radio links for communications. The new AH-64E by contrast is much better configured for integration in a modern networked battlespace. Link 16 allows the new model to share target-grade data with any other Link 16-equipped asset in the battlespace, especially allied fast jets and surveillance platforms. This not only offers the potential for greatly increased battlefield situational awareness for UK Apache crews compared with what was possible for the AH-1 variant, but it will also significantly boost the survivability and effectiveness of the platform against opponents with their own radar or radar-warning receiver capabilities. The prominent Longbow radar which sits above the main rotor head on the AH-64D and AH-64E is highly effective in its intended role of quickly surveying a battlefield, identifying and prioritising targets, and allowing them to be engaged with a Hellfire missile volley. However, scanning with the Longbow radar makes the aircraft a highly visible target in the electromagnetic spectrum which is a serious problem against even near-peer opponents. The Longbow radar also cannot see through terrain so the aircraft is required to at least partially expose itself to detect and engage targets behind hills or structures. With the addition of Link 16 capability, the AH-64E model can receive target-grade data and engage threats it otherwise could not detect without exposing itself to return fire.
The AH-64E also allows its crew to take control of UAVs in its vicinity, and to view ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) information and full motion video feeds directly in its cockpits from both those UAVs and troops on the ground. This further enhances tactical flexibility in high-threat environments by reducing the need for the Apache crew to place themselves at risk in order to locate and engage hostile threats, as well as making targeting faster and more precise in lower-threat environments. However, in personal interviews with the author, US Army crews have complained that the addition of UAV-controlling and -monitoring responsibilities can detrimentally affect crew performance and even flight safety in high-stress situations, especially when flying at low altitude, in bad weather or under fire.
Just as is the case for fast jets, the addition of too many new capabilities without a corresponding increase in pilot-interface streamlining and data prioritisation software can lead to information overload and diminished performance. Fortunately, the new digital cockpit layout in the AH-64E with multiple colour LCD displays has significantly improved the human–machine interface over the AH-1/AH-64D standard aircraft so the impact should not be so great as to be unmanageable with the right tactics, techniques and procedures.
In terms of strategic flexibility for the UK’s Apache force, the new AH-64E aircraft will need to be certified for maritime operations in order to allow the new fleet to continue to deploy on Royal Navy ships in the future without the corrosion and airframe fatigue problems which were initially caused by the AH-1 deployments aboard HMS Ocean in 2011. The UK’s Apache AH-1 fleet was supposed to undergo marinisation in the mid-2000s for the express purpose of enabling deployments on HMS Ocean and other Royal Navy vessels, but the demands of Afghanistan put the plan on hold. Once operations in Libya commenced in 2011, Leonardo applied its Enhanced Corrosion Protection package to alleviate the initial corrosion problems for the embarked AH-1s. When the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carriers approach full operating capability in the early–mid 2020s, Apache deployments as part of the air component are likely to be routine and as long as marinisation measures along the lines of Leonardo's Enhanced Corrosion Protection upgrade for the AH-1 fleet are applied, should not significantly degrade the operational lifespans of the AH-64Es involved. They will provide a useful complement to the limited quantities of RAF/Royal Navy F-35Bs as part of the UK’s carrier-enabled power projection aspirations.
Perhaps most importantly, the choice to purchase US-standard AH-64E Apache Guardians rather than to manufacture a UK-specific variant under licence as with the AH-1 will alleviate one of the core limitations of the latter fleet. As the US Army develops the AH-64 family’s capability suite and adds new software standards, modifications and weapons, the UK will be able to easily incorporate these upgrades into its own fleet. This will not only help to keep the aircraft as capable as possible into the 2030s but will also help maintain the greatest possible level of interoperability between army aviation assets of the UK, US and other allies which fly the AH-64E. This extends beyond interoperability between different Apache units, because it means that British troops who have trained with British AH-64Es will be able to get maximum benefit from support provided by US Army Apaches in a conflict or exercise without requiring additional training on the precise capabilities the latter can offer (and vice versa).
In summary, the British government’s decision to purchase the AH-64E Apache Guardian from Boeing through the FMS programme will provide an excellent capability for the British Army and Joint Helicopter Command that will benefit from a global supply chain and long-term upgrade commonality with the US Army. The AH-64Es are more powerful, capable, fuel efficient and operationally flexible than the Apache AH-1s which they will replace.
Research Fellow for Combat Airpower and Technology, RUSI.