|Bell AH-1Z. Bell/Kalee Appleton|
The U.S. Marine Corps will deploy its first operational squadron equipped with a mix of UH-1Ys and AH-1Zs this November, bringing together the results of its H-1 upgrade program started in 1996. This will be the first opportunity for the two helicopters to deploy together with a Marine Expeditionary Unit. The value of the combination of the new upgraded utility and attack helicopters is combined capabilities together with the synergies created by its 84 percent commonality logistics footprint, according to Chuck Gummo, Bell’s military business development manager.
The AH-1Z received DoD authorization for full-rate production last November, and achieved initial operational capability (IOC) in February. Bell delivered the first AH-1Z to USMC in January 2007. It was declared combat-ready in 2008.
The manufacturer has handed over a total of 15 AH-1Zs to date—two this year so far with an additional five on track for delivery by the end of 2011. USMC has ordered a total of 189, of which 131 will be remanufactured AH-1Ws.
Under the latest H-1 upgrade program planning, a total of 349 UH-1Y Hueys and AH-1Z Cobras were ordered, although the number of AH-1Zs was reduced by 37 while the number of UH-1Y was increased by 37, Gummo said. Current planning calls for each Marine Corps helicopter squadron to be equipped with 12 UH-1Ys and 15 AH-1Zs.
The AH-1Z upgrade program was not without controversy. Final Operational Evaluation (OPEVAL) testing started in 2008, but was then stopped because of issues with the aircraft’s targeting system. However, it now has a new Lockheed Martin AN-AAQ-30 target sight system (TSS) that incorporates a third-generation FLIR sensor providing day, night or adverse weather target acquisition, tracking with either FLIR or by TV. The system operates with the 20 mm nose-mounted gun, rockets and Hellfire missiles, and allows the pilots to operate at ranges beyond the sight and range of the enemy.
“The AH-1Z is the best in the world,” Gummo claimed. “No other platform in the world can even come close to the [helicopter’s] TSS.” Meanwhile, Northrop Grumman provides the helicopter’s open architecture Integrated Avionics System (IAS), which has two mission computers that power the glass cockpit and allow for easy system upgrades as new technology is developed. The IAS also improves the aircrew’s situational awareness and weapons accuracy by providing critical mission data on four displays.
The AH-1Z features significant differences over the AH-1Y that it will replace, including longer “wet” wing stubs containing fuel that give it either twice the range or twice the payload weight of the Y model with “dry” wing stubs. The aircraft’s twin power plants are General Electric T700-GE-401Cs rated at 1,800 shp each to provide better “hot/high” performance over the 401 engines on the AH01W rated at 1,690 shp.
It also has a new four-bladed bearingless, hingeless rotor system with 75 percent fewer parts than the two-bladed articulated system on the Whisky model.