They’ve done it with the Chinook, now they’re doing it with the Apache. Boeing expects that the AH-64 production line will still be running in 2040, thanks to a strategy that offers a continuing series of upgrades that can be efficiently incorporated on a single production line that recycles used aircraft as well as producing new ones.
On a visit last month to the home of the Apache in Mesa, Arizona, AIN saw new-build AH-64D Block IIs for the U.S. Army coming down the line, mixed in with remanufactured airframes for the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates. These aircraft are being procured under fixed-price or not-to-exceed contracts. The line moves every three-and-a-half days, and produces six to seven aircraft per month.
Block II production will give way to the Block III in 2011. Development of this latest version has been under way since May 2005, but was accelerated only once the RAH-66 Comanche development was formally ended. Now, the U.S. Army wants to buy 224 of them over six years starting in 2011.
After that, an Extended Block III version would be produced. All of the Block IIIs for the U.S. Army will be remanufactured from AH-64D Block Is, although it is also possible to turn an early AH-64A model into an AH-64D Block III.
According to Brad Rounding, Boeing’s manager of Apache programs, although there are airframe improvements in the Block III, most of the changes are sensor-driven. “It looks like the same helicopter, but there are 26 enhancements. About 60 percent of the development is done, and two prototypes are flying,” he said. “There have been no major requirement or design changes from our original proposal. A stable configuration keeps the costs down.”
The airframe changes include the more powerful GE T700-701D engines that are common to the Army’s UH-60 BlackHawks; composite main rotor blades; and a new drive system. There is an open system architecture–the single most important change, according to Rounding.
Connectivity with other assets on the battlefield will be much improved, including unmanned aerial vehicles, which the Apache will be able to control to “Level 4,” for example, the pointing of its sensor or its redirection. The range of the helicopter’s sensors will be increased, so targets may be identified and attacked as far as the horizon. Data fusion will enhance the crew’s situational awareness. Embedded diagnostics will help with maintenance.
International sales kept the Apache line moving in 2006-07. Ten overseas countries have bought the AH-64, and Boeing sees new prospects in the Nordic Countries, Turkey and Korea. The fuselage shells for new Apaches are made in Korea, to offset that country’s purchase of F-15K Strike Eagles.