How the AH-64 Apache Became the Ultimate Attack Helicopter
Early in the morning of January 17, 1991, eight sleek helicopters bristling with missiles swooped low over the sands of the An Nafud desert in as they soared towards the border separating Saudi Arabia from Iraq.
At 2:30 a.m., the choppers fanned out and set to work in teams of two. Rocket motors flashed as Hellfire missiles streaked towards two Iraqi radars powerful enough to potentially pick up the faint signature of a stealth plane.
Minutes after the radars had been reduced to rubble, Nighthawk stealth jets soared through the twenty-mile-wide radar gap, headed for Baghdad. But the Army’s Apache attack helicopter aviators they had struck first to “kick down the door” for the Nighthawks.
Nearly three decades later, the Apache’s status as the world’s premier attack helicopter remains largely unchallenged, and the type continues to see extensive action in the Middle East and in demand in countries as diverse as the UK, Egypt, India and Taiwan. The $35 million armored attack helicopter, which can pack as many as sixteen tank-busting missiles under its stub wings, remains supreme.
The Apache’s origins date back to the United States withdrawal from the Vietnam War, as the Army turned its attention back to the huge mechanized armies of the Warsaw Pact. Helicopter gunships had proven highly useful in Vietnam for delivering precise strikes and loitering air support—but relatively lightly-armed Viet Cong had shot down hundreds of them. The Red Army mustered heavier anti-aircraft defenses and huge tank armies that would not be phased by miniguns and anti-personnel rockets.
Seeking a helicopter fit to tackle Soviet tank division, the Army ultimately had to choose between the Bell YAH-63, which resembled a stretched-out Cobra, and the McDonnell-Douglas YAH-64. Disliking the former’s tricycle landing gear and two-shaft rotor, the Army selected the YAH-64 in 1976. Per custom (and even regulation), permission was obtained from Apache elders to name the helicopter after the Native American tribe.
The AH-64’s tandem seats situate the pilot higher to the rear while a weapons officer and co-pilot sat closer to the nose. Though both can fly the chopper, the pilot uses a PNVS wide-angle infrared night-vision system for navigation, while the gunner employs a rotating TADS targeting system, combining zoomable infrared cameras with a laser-target mounted in a turret on the Apache’s nose.
The crew are protected by 2,500 pounds of light boron plating and Kevlar-lined seats, protecting them from ubiquitous 12.7-millimeter machineguns and twenty-three-milimeter flak cannons, while the fuel tanks have self-sealing protection system. Both laser and radar-warning receivers alert the crew to imminent missile attacks, and a rotor-mounted ALQ-144A “disco ball” infrared jammer can help mis-direct heat-seeking missiles.
Two 1,700-horsepower T700-GE-701 turboshafts, slung on each side of the fuselage in heat-signature-reducing pods, turn the four-bladed main and tail rotors made of steel and composite materials, allowing speeds of 182 miles per hour, a service ceiling of 21,000 feet, and an endurance of 150 minutes. Despite weighing nearly nine tons loaded, the Apache proved exceptionally agile, capable of pulling off barrel rolls and loops.
The Apache’s stub wings each mount two pylons typically carrying a mix of pods carrying nineteen 2.75-inch rockets for use against personnel and light vehicles, and quad-racks of AGM-114 Hellfire anti-tank missiles.
In Vietnam, AH-1 Cobra gunships had successfully picked off North Vietnamese tanks with wire-guided TOW missiles. But these required the helicopter to hover exposed for a half-minute or longer as the gunner piloted the missile to the target—a potentially suicidal tactic in a high-intensity conflict. The one-hundred-pound Hellfire was laser-guided, and traveled at supersonic speeds, meaning the operator only had to paint its target with a laser for ten seconds or less. This allowed Apaches to hover low behind terrain, perform a popup-Hellfire attack, and then duck back behind cover.
For precisely strafing personnel targets lightly armored vehicles, the Apache mounts a hydraulically-operated M230 “Chain Gun” under its chin which can rattle out five to ten 30-millimeter high-explosive dual-purpose shells per second, with 1,200 M789 shells carried in a looping feed mechanism.
The AH-64A entered service in 1986, with 821 eventually delivered through 1996. These initially imposed heavy new maintenance demands on Army mechanics.
First seeing action at night during the 1989 U.S. intervention in Panama, only two years later in the Gulf War did the Apache’s capabilities truly became evident. The 278 AH-64As deployed destroyed 500 armored vehicles for the loss of just one chopper to a rocket propelled grenade.
Despite its successes, the AH-64A remained a product of analog-era technology. After canceling AH-64A+ and B upgrades, the Army finally committed to the heavily modernized AH-64D variant with color digital flight displays, modem-based datalinks, and a new GPS and doppler radar navigation systems.
The D-model’s best known innovation, however, was an optional drum-shaped APG-78 “Longbow” radome on a mast atop the Apache’s rotor, used to target the radar-guided AGM-114L missiles up to five miles away. The Longbow’s raised position allowed an Apache to track multiple air or ground targets while hovering concealed behind trees or hills. Later Apaches also received modernized Arrowhead M-TADs sights, and some could carry Stinger heat-seeking missiles on the tips of their wing stubs, for use against helicopters, drones and slow-flying aircraft.
Apache Longbows proved many times more deadly and survivable than the AH-64As in exercises, so the Army upgraded 501 the new model, and retired the remaining un-upgraded AH-64As in 2012. However, the added weight of the Longbow did diminish speed and altitude performance.
After somewhat scandalously being kept from engaging in the 1999 Kosova conflict, Apaches would soon see extensive action in the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. During the opening days of the latter, the 3rd Infantry Division massed 31 Apaches for an ambitious deep-penetrating raid targeting the Medina Armored division’s positions around Karbala.
This radical experiment in massed helicopter employment ended in near-disaster as the Apaches ran into an urban “flak trap” of Iraqi troops wielding assault rifles, heavy machineguns, surface-to-air missiles, twenty-three- and fifty-seven-millimeter flak cannons, and rocket-propelled grenades. Twenty-seven of the helicopters limped back to base riddled with heavy-caliber bullets. Another crash landed and Apache Vampire 12 crashed into a marsh, its crew captured and the wreckage prominently displayed on Iraqi television.
However, the Apache fought on for many long years of counterinsurgency warfare, sustaining several losses but infliciting considerable damage on its adversaries.
Apache exported abroad also saw considerable, high-profile action. For example, ibn 2002, the IDF controversially debuted a new tactic of using Apache-fired Hellfire missiles like high-collateral-damage sniper rifles to assassinate Hamas leaders. Israeli Apaches have also twice engaged aerial targets, shooting down a civilian Cessna and an Iranian stealth drone.
The United Kingdom, meanwhile, license-manufactured sixty-seven of its own Augusta-Westland Apaches with Rolls-Royce RTM322 turboshafts and punchier CRV7 rockets. These too have seen extensive action over Iraq and Afghanistan. Two were even once used to land a team of four commandos strapped to the stub-wings.
British Apaches were also uniquely deployed at sea from the amphibious assault ship HMS Ocean in May-September 2011 to knock out Libyan air-defenses and blast counterattacking tanks and amphibious commandoes.
The Future Apache
The Apache continues to evolve in the twenty-first century. The latest AH-64E Guardian model boasts uprated engines, remote drone-control capabilities, and a sensors designed to highlight muzzle flashes on the battlefield below. The Army has also experimentally deployed Apaches on U.S. Navy ships and had them practice anti-ship missions, and even tested a laser-armed Apache.
Following the retirement of OH-58D Kiowa scout helicopters, AH-64Es have been pressed into reconnaissance units, controversially sourced at the expense of National Guard units. However, the heavy attack helicopters have not proven a great fit for the scouting role, so a dedicated scout helicopter is being sought to replace them.
As short-range air-defense systems grow increasingly deadly, and attack helicopters more costly, the survivability of even the Apache on twenty-first century battlefields remains open to question. However, the attack helicopter’s ability to ferret out and battlefield targets and hammer them with precision missiles remains highly valued. Therefore, the Army plans to keep flying Apaches into the 2040s, by which time a new generation of “Future Vertical Lift” choppers may eventually assume their mantle.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.