An AH-64 Apache pilot’s best friend is rapidly becoming whichever unmanned aerial system (UAS) he is tasked to work with during an engagement. A British Army Air Corps Apache pilot, recounting some of his experiences from Afghanistan while answering questions from the audience during a Royal Aeronautical Society function in London recently, said that an increasing number of the ‘bad guys’ that he and his colleagues were facing were perfecting their tactics on how to continue to fight tactically while helicopters and/or fast jets were delivering ordinance onto their position.
“Whenever they hear us overhead, they stop firing, go to ground and wait for us to go away or return to base to refuel,” he said. “They have got the fast jets worked out too—they know how long it takes for a jet to turn around and get back onto target after dropping its bombs or other weapons, and between times they continue the fight,” said the pilot (who won’t be named for operational reasons).
In this deadly game of cat-and-mouse, a trend is starting to emerge where fixed-wing and rotary attack aircraft are increasingly relying on UAS to hand back the tactical element of surprise, by flying high and silently overhead keeping an unblinking eye on what the enemy is doing—and lulling them into a false sense of security so that ‘stand-off’ type attacks can be mounted, or the attack helicopters can roll in over the horizon without having to spend time in searching for and identifying the targets themselves before they can take action.
This tacit acknowledgement by the Taliban of Boeing’s AH-64 Apache as a feared flying killing machine, for that is its main function, is borne out of years of exposure to it. Its onboard weapons support troops on the ground in close combat in a wide variety of scenarios.
In Afghanistan this is illustrated in a number of ways. The 30mm chain cannon can lay a lethal burst of heavy weapons fire, sometimes within danger close range, that has the effect of disrupting even the most hardened of attacks over the ground. For hardened targets the missile of choice has been the AGM-114 Hellfire. This accurate traditional anti-tank round can not only bust the thick, sun-baked mud walls and shelters, but its explosive power kills those surrounding the impact area. The 2.75mm unguided rockets (especially when of the flachette type) are lethal as an area weapon and have been used against known targets hiding under cover in ‘the Green Zone’ that spreads either side of the Helmand River.
But systems that can hand the advantage back to the aviators are now being used and proven in combat. Lockheed Martin’s VUIT-2 is currently deployed to Afghanistan on the U.S. Army’s AH-64 Apaches and is being used in coordination with the RQ-7B Shadow and Warrior. This manned-unmanned teaming allows the Apache to receive real-time video and targeting information from the UAS, which can be entered into the attack helicopter’s targeting system for engagement. Result: early detection, quicker engagement, and an enemy on the ground unsure of where they are being observed from. ‘We won’t let Task Force ODIN go away,’ promised the panel on senior Army commanders at the second day of conference at this year’s Quad-A (Army Aviation Association).
Just to recap, TF ODIN (which stands for observe, detect, identify and neutralize) was a U.S. Army creation back in 2006 in Iraq to detect and insurgents who were setting down IEDs. Last year TF ODIN-Afghanistan was established to do a similar job—but with the advantages that UAS and C-12 ARMS aircraft gives the watcher, the wider aim is not just to take out those who are planting the devices, but to track them back and to “attack networks and eliminate them over a period of time.”
Perhaps an oddest development for old rotary wing aviators to grasp is that BG William Crosby, PEO Aviation, now has a project management line for Russian Mi-17 helicopters. Yep, Mi-17 NATO code-named Hips are now project managed by Army Aviation! This has come about through a Pentagon directive decreeing someone needs to take responsibility for the fleet of Mi-17s that the DoD has bought for allies (Iraq and Afghanistan) and for U.S. use. That someone is Bill Crosby. Although the directive covers non-standard rotary wing aircraft, it is the Mi-17 (the AK-47 of the helicopter world) that has raised eyebrows. Crosby summarized it like this: “This is an effort by the OSD [Office of Secretary of Defense] to get our arms around an effort to partner with our allies—and we have to ensure airworthiness and safety of these systems for our aviators and our soldiers flying in the back of these helicopters. We owe them that same certification.”