The first three AH-64D Block III Apaches, the latest update of the attack helicopter, were advancing through production this month at the Boeing Global Strike facility in Mesa, Arizona, in advance of first deliveries to the U.S. Army this fall.
Last October Boeing was awarded a $247 million U.S. government contract to begin low-rate initial production (LRIP) of the Block III Apache, initially for eight Lot 1 aircraft. The LRIP phase covers 51 aircraft for the Army, and, according to the Army’s Apache program manager, will include the start of production of 30 helicopters ordered by Taiwan, the first export customer of the Block III.
The Army plans to acquire 690 Block III Apaches through 2027, most of them remanufactured Block Is and IIs, but with 56 newly built to replace training and combat losses. New fuselages will be incorporated as of ship 44 to zero-time airframes, which have an operational life of 10,000 hours, said Mike Burke, Boeing director of Rotorcraft Business Development.
Boeing counts 11 international customers, with 250 new and remanufactured Apaches on order. The sale to Taiwan was made known through notification to the U.S. Congress by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency in October 2008. Valued then at $2.5 billion with all options exercised, it calls for 30 AH-64D Block III Apaches fitted with the mast-mounted Longbow fire-control radar as well as Longbow Hellfire missiles, Stinger air-to-air missiles and other equipment.
Army Col. Shane Openshaw, the Apache project manager at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, confirmed the production start for Taiwan. Other Apache international buyers are Egypt, Greece, Israel, Japan, Kuwait, The Netherlands, the UAE, Singapore, Saudi Arabia and UK.
Boeing said there is significant ongoing international interest in new and remanufactured Apaches. “It’s been a good market, it’s been a good product over the last 28 years and it portends to be a very good product and offering over the next 28 years, as far as we can see,” said Burke.
Designed as a tank killer in the 1980s, the attack helicopter remains relevant “because of the continuous improvement that we’ve made in this aircraft, and all these block upgrades, plus the continuous improvement we’ve made in between the block upgrades,” Burke said. “Today it is the number-one weapon system in the street fights in the global war on terror. That’s why it’s relevant today.”
The Block III upgrade features improved GE Aviation T700-GE-701D engines with enhanced digital electronic engine control units, improved drive system and transmission, composite rotor blades and extended range fire-control radar and missiles. Pilots’ situational awareness is enhanced through a cognitive-decision aiding system that fuses sensor information. Computer processing power is increased and based on an open-system architecture enabling easy replacement of processors. The software-defined joint tactical radio system voice and data radio, when available, will be inserted during Block III production.
Among technology advances, Openshaw said Block III Apaches will be capable of Level 4 operational control of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), including the MQ-1C Grey Eagle and RQ-7 Shadow and their sensor payloads. “We’ll have Level 4 interoperability out of the box with Block III,” he said. Asked about the possibility of workload issues associated with flying an unmanned aircraft, Openshaw said the Army “had a concern” initially, but that user studies in 2009 confirmed Apache crews would not be overtaxed by UAV control.
The Boeing Mesa factory receives torn-down Apache airframes from the Corpus Christi, Texas Army depot, and is producing three or four remanufactured Block IIs a month. Boeing reports 47 Block II Apaches will be delivered this year to the Army and international customers. The Army has extended the Block II program until 2013, meaning Block II and III Apaches for two years will be manufactured at the same time on parallel lines.
Block III Apaches are being disassembled by Science Engineering Services near the Redstone Arsenal. The plan is to produce six Block III helicopters monthly in Mesa, increasing to possibly 10 aircraft a month by 2013, said Fred Robinson, Boeing’s Apache production manager.
With Block III production, Boeing will be operating four production lines at the Mesa facility, which employs 4,500 people. In addition to Block II and III Apaches, the facility produces the AH-6i light attack/reconnaissance helicopter and A160 Hummingbird unmanned helicopter.