The U.S. Army’s 1-229th Attack Reconnaissance Battalion (ARB), based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, has fielded the latest model Boeing AH-64E Apache Guardian attack helicopter in Afghanistan with impressive results, Army and Boeing officials said. The deployment has also afforded the “Tigersharks” an opportunity to direct unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) using the AH-64E’s UAS tactical datalink.
The 1-229th ARB, the Army’s first unit equipped with AH-64Es, achieved initial operational capability of the helicopter in November and deployed to Afghanistan with 24 Guardians in March. “The Echo model is more fuel efficient, more powerful and just as lethal as the Delta model, but it’s more lethal because of the situational awareness we can give to the pilot,” said Col. Jeffrey Hager, the Army’s Apache program manager.
Col. John Lynch, the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command capability manager for reconnaissance and attack, said AH-64Es had accumulated 1,700 hours in Afghanistan between March and late June. Pilots were able to manage unmanned aircraft using E models equipped with the mast-mounted UAS tactical common datalink assembly (UTA) supplied by the Longbow LLC partnership of Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.
Armed Aerial Scouts
With the UTA fitted above the main rotor, AH-64E pilots can control MQ-1C Gray Eagle and RQ-7 Shadow UAS to Level 4–full flight except takeoff and landing. In this manned-unmanned teaming role, Apaches will fulfill the armed aerial scout mission long served by OH-58D Kiowa Warriors, which the Army is retiring. “They’re actually working with Gray Eagles in theater as much as they can to practice and take advantage of situational awareness,” Lynch said of the 1-229th ARB.
In August, the Army will test AH-64E capability lot 4, which among other updates adds the Link 16 tactical datalink, enabling Apache pilots to communicate and disseminate information in near real-time with other aircraft, ships and ground forces. Link 16 will be a “game changer” for the Apache, Lynch said.
Hager and Lynch spoke with reporters during a press trip Boeing (Chalet B6) sponsored to its Apache assembly plant in Mesa, Arizona, last month. In a separate briefing, Mike Burke, a former U.S. Army brigadier general who recently retired as Boeing’s director of business development for attack helicopters, said the Guardian’s composite main rotor blades, new transmission and improved General Electric T700-GE-701D engines have produced a more powerful Apache.
“The aircraft has performed very, very well. It’s flying more time than its D-model counterpart today because of the sustainability of the aircraft,” Burke declared. “The aircraft can now get to the fight quicker than they used to with a full load of ammunition.”
E Models Built in Mesa
Last year, Boeing stopped production of D-model Apaches in Mesa, where only AH-64Es are assembled now for the Army and foreign military sales customers. The E models are built with new fuselages supplied by Korea Aerospace Industries from Sacheon, South Korea, and components disassembled and repaired from older Apaches by Science Engineering Services (SES) in Huntsville, Alabama. Jeff Riedel, Boeing director of Apache production, estimated that 12 percent of AH-64E components are remanufactured.
Boeing said it delivered 82 AH-64D/E models to U.S. and foreign militaries last year. It had delivered 117 E-model Apaches, including 48 to international customers, from October 2011 through May 2014. The U.S. Army plans to buy a total of 690 E models.
Burke said other Apaches are operating from Navy ships in the Arabian Gulf, defending naval formations from swarms of small boats. “The U.S. Navy has concluded the Apache does that better than anything else,” he said. In the Pacific, AH-64Es are conducting interoperability-training exercises from Navy ships. The UK Royal Navy operates Apache AH Mk1s from the HMS Ocean, a helicopter carrier and assault ship.
Boeing also briefed reporters on its AH-6i light-attack/reconnaissance helicopter, for which the Saudi Arabia National Guard is the planned launch customer. The manufacturer estimates a worldwide market for 700 to 715 of the single-turbine helicopters based on the Hughes OH-6A Cayuse. It is also upgrading the AH-6M variant U.S. special operations forces use to a Block 3 configuration.
The manufacturer is also working with the Korea Air Aerospace Division on a program to convert a Republic of Korea Army MD-500D to an optionally piloted helicopter, known as the H-6U Unmanned Little Bird (ULB). Boeing has logged more than 1,700 hours flying the ULB as an unmanned platform. “We’ve been demonstrating quite a bit on this aircraft,” said Dino Cerchie, Boeing ULB program manager.