First AH-64E Apaches Arrive In UK, Will Serve As New Carriers’ Other Strike Capability

Part of Britain’s new-look attack helicopter force, the AH-64E gunships will also be able to team with drones.

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The first pair of AH-64E Apache gunships have been delivered to the United Kingdom, kicking off a long-awaited modernization of the British Army’s attack helicopter capability. The initial pair of E-models, also referred to as Apache Guardians, boasts a host of new features and will start replacement of the United Kingdom’s legacy Apache fleet. 

The first two AH-64Es for the British Army were transported by road to Wattisham Flying Station, Suffolk, eastern England, on November 26, 2020, after being flown to the United Kingdom onboard a Royal Air Force C-17 Globemaster III airlifter. They were accompanied by their maintainers, aviation technicians from the Army’s 7 Aviation Support Battalion, Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.

“The arrival of the first Apache E-model attack helicopter to be delivered to the British Army over the next two years marks the beginning of a significant uplift in capability to enhance the Army’s contribution across the spectrum of military operations,” said Major General Jez Bennett, the British Army’s Director of Capability. 

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British serial number ZM704, one of the first two new British Army Apache AH-64Es to arrive in the United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom is in the process of acquiring 50 of the latest AH-64Es as part of a plan that calls for the final retirement of the legacy British Army WAH-64D Apaches, also known as Apache AH1s in U.K. service, in 2024.

The British Army Apache AH1s have seen considerable combat experience, beginning with a first deployment to Camp Bastion, Helmand province, Afghanistan, in 2006. Among the most dramatic missions flown in Afghanistan was an attempted combat rescue in January 2007, when Royal Marines strapped themselves to the outside of an Apache. Although they were only able to recover the body of their fallen comrade, Lance Corporal Ford, it was a powerful demonstration of the Apache’s versatility under fire.

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A British Army Air Corps Apache AH1 landing at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan.

The last British Apache unit to deploy to Afghanistan flew top cover for the final withdrawal of British troops from Camp Bastion in October 2014. In the meantime, the British Army Apaches also went to war in Libya in 2011, as part of the NATO-led coalition. 

In May 2017, the United Kingdom placed a $488.1-million Foreign Military Sales (FMS) order with Boeing, a modification of an existing deal, to remanufacture 38 Apache AH1s to AH-64E standard as part of a wider Lot 7-11 production run, as well as to procure three Longbow crew trainers and associated spares. This work was scheduled to be completed at the Boeing plant in Mesa, Arizona, by May 31, 2024.

Although there were rumors they might be dropped as a cost-saving measure, the remaining final 12 AH-64Es for the United Kingdom were eventually covered by a separate $565.5-million contract issued in December 2019, another modification of an existing FMS award, which included the rework of a total of 47 aircraft, including others for the Netherlands and the United Arab Emirates. The estimated completion date for this work is March 1, 2025.

By mid-2019, 16 Apache AH1s had been delivered to Mesa for the AH-64E remanufacture program and the first British E-model was flown from Mesa, Arizona, to the US Army facility at Redstone Army Airfield, Alabama, to begin testing, last summer. 

The British Army AH-64Es will be in the Version 6 configuration, which the service describes as the “most advanced variant of Apache,” and is one that The War Zone has examined in detail in the past. It’s unclear, as yet, if the AH-64Es will receive the British military designation Apache AH2, although some sources have reported this is the plan.

US ARMY VIA @MIL_STD

A schematic diagram of the AH-64 components that have received an upgrade under Version 6. 

Version 6 offers notable advantages over the initial blocks of AH-64Es and its emphasis on over-water combat is something that the British Army will likely have paid particular attention to. Among official plans for the future air wings of the Royal Navy’s two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers is a so-called Littoral Manoeuvre setup that combines Apaches with a variety of assault transport and support helicopters. Since it’s also planned for the air wings to be tailored for combinations of Carrier Strike and Littoral Manoeuvre capabilities if required, it’s also possible that the new Apaches will eventually go to sea alongside the F-35B Lightning jet fighter, to provide a two-pronged offensive-oriented air complement. 

The latest avionics in the Version 6 include a fire-control radar with extended range, thought to be around 10 miles, around double that of the previous Longbow. The radar also has a new maritime mode, which will be critical for littoral missions, including from the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers. In the Libyan campaign in 2011, British Army Apache AH1s also flew from the deck of a warship, launching missions from the amphibious assault ship HMS Ocean and engaging regime targets on 39 occasions during its first month of combat in Libya.

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A British Army Air Corps Apache AH1 takes off from HMS Ocean during Operation Ellamy, the UK’s contribution to the Libyan campaign in 2011.

Compared to the British Army’s WAH-64Ds, meanwhile, the basic AH-64E already offered significant benefits, including both performance and avionics advantages over the D-model, of which the 67th and final example was handed over to the British Army in 2004. Under a rolling program of updates, the E-model already offered Link 16 data links, Mode 5 identification friend or foe, new communication and communication relay systems, and the ability to operate as a manned-unmanned team with drones. 

It’s unclear exactly what degree of interaction with drones the British Army AH-64E will be capable of, initially at least, with an official press release stating only that “Link 16, Mode 5 Identification Friend or Foe and, in time, manned-unmanned teaming [will] bring theatre entry-standard equipment fits and vastly increase crew battle-space awareness.”

Aircraft performance improvements in the E-model are secured through the use of new engines, drivetrain, and main rotor blades.

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One of the first two new British Army Apache AH-64Es inside an RAF C-17 at RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, after flying in from Kansas City.

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An AH-64E is offloaded from a C-17, with its main rotor blades visible in the foreground.

The ability to carry external fuel tanks to extend the helicopter’s range was introduced in the AH-64E too, but it’s notable that this is something that the British Army had already added to its WAH-64Ds as a unique local modification. The addition of 125-gallon external tanks carried on the inboard stores pylons increased the gunship’s endurance by around 90 minutes.

Despite the advances inherent in the AH-64E, all of which have been allocated new British military serial numbers, there remains some commonality between the WAH-64D and the new British Army AH-64E. 

The program makes valuable cost savings in that it reuses many important components from the original Apache AH1s. These are harvested from the old helicopters and then combined with new airframes, engines, rotor blades, and avionics. Parts that are recycled in this way include the mast-mounted assembly for the fire-control radar, Lockheed Martin’s Modernized Target Acquisition Designation Sight/Pilot Night Vision Sensor (M-TADS/PNVS), the main rotor hub and other transmission elements, plus some structural elements.

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The nose-mounted M-TADS/PNVS is among the components on the AH-64E that have been reused from earlier Apache AH1s.

The resulting aircraft will offer commonality with U.S. Army and other allied AH-64E fleets and the British Army anticipates the aircraft will be easier to maintain and more reliable, “so that it will be more straightforward to sustain in any operational environment.” Aircraft availability will be aided by embedded system-level diagnostics to alert maintainers to potential technical problems. 

The British Army won’t actually start flying its new attack helicopter in the United Kingdom until July 2021. In the meantime, it will have to be determined that the AH-64E is fully safe to operate and meets all the airworthiness requirements. The helicopter’s documentation, simulators, training, and instructors all similarly require local certification.

A series of flight trials will then commence, followed by the training of instructor pilots on the new model. Then, full-rate conversion training will be launched for 3 Regiment Army Air Corps, with the aim of achieving full operating capability alongside the Wildcat AH1 light helicopter in 2023.

The British Army’s plans call for the AH-64E to operate as an Attack Reconnaissance Team (ART) with the Wildcat AH1 within 1 Aviation Brigade. The Wildcat AH1 is the battlefield reconnaissance version of the Leonardo AW159 helicopter, 34 of which are in service and which can act as airborne forward air controllers, or FACs, directing fire from fast jets, naval and field artillery, as well as attack helicopters.

 

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A British Army Air Corps door gunner poses alongside a Wildcat AH1 helicopter fitted with a 50-caliber Browning M3M machine gun.

Co-operative exercises involving Apache AH1s and Wildcat AH1s have included 2018 maneuvers at Aberporth, Wales, in which a Wildcat laser-designated a target for a pair of Apaches, which then engaged it using two Hellfire missiles and without using their own laser designators, helping prove the ART concept.  

A year later, five Apache AH1s deployed to the Baltic region for a three-month period as part of NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence, or eFP, in the region. Here, they operated together with four Wildcat AH1s from Ämari Air Base, including participation in Estonia’s annual Exercise Spring Storm maneuvers.

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A British Army Wildcat AH1 and an Apache AH1 at Ämari Air Base in Estonia.

As well as working alongside the Wildcat AH1, the British Army has suggested a future role for the AH-64E teamed with unmanned aircraft systems (UASs). 

“From supporting hostage rescue missions to countering an adversaries’ anti-access, area-denial platforms, the Apache E outstrips the outgoing Mark 1 aircraft by increased platform digitalization, improved weapons and avionics, and the ability to use the latest and future technology to enable teaming with semi-autonomous systems such as UASs,” said Brigadier Paul Tedman, Commander 1 Aviation Brigade.

The reference to manned-unmanned teaming, which is a key part of the overall Version 6 package, suggests the British Army Version 6 AH-64E may be fitted with, or have provision for, the U.S. Army’s Manned-Unmanned Teaming-Extended (MUMT-X) system, which increases the range at which the helicopter can share data with drones.

The United Kingdom is increasingly looking to expand its UAS capabilities, including swarming drones. Recent trials conducted by Leonardo may also provide an indication of the types of UAS that the British Army’s AH-64E may be adapted to work with in the future. The British AH-64Es could also harness their manned-unmanned teaming ability to cooperate with the Royal Air Force’s forthcoming Protector drones, essentially mimicking the way that U.S. Army Apaches and MQ-1C Gray Eagles work together

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Following engineering acceptance and crew training, the new AH-64E seen here will replace the battle-proven Apache AH1, which reaches its out of service date in 2024.

While smaller in number than the Apache AH1 fleet, the AH-64E will also benefit from changes to the British Army Air Corps force structure, which is now tailored for rapid deployment to support the army’s reaction force and high-readiness brigades, for example sending deployments to the Baltics, or elsewhere, at short notice.

With the promise of improved performance and capabilities, including cooperative missions with other manned and unmanned aircraft, the British Army’s frontline units will no doubt be eager to get their hands on the newly arrived E-model Apache, and it will be interesting to see how the gunship’s maritime attributes are melded into the future carrier air wings.  

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com