The future of the United Kingdom’s Westland Attack Helicopter (WAH-64D) Apache force is in the early stages of review. With the UK’s commitment to operations in Afghanistan ending within two years, the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) Capability Sustainment Program (CSP) is examining the spectrum of possibilities, according to Col. Andrew Cash, Commander Aviation of the British Army’s 16 Air Assault Brigade.
Speaking at the Royal Aeronautical Society on November 20, Cash said that all possible options were being considered: “from ‘do nothing’ or the minimal, to technology insertion into the existing airframes, then updating the helicopters to AH-64E standard or a UK variation on the AH-64E, or even a new attack helicopter.” He added that technical options were currently being evaluated and the findings would be delivered next year.
The dilemma facing the MoD is one borne out of a decision taken during the 1980s to invest in an AgustaWestland licensed version of Boeing’s AH-64D (Longbow) Apache. This included the Rolls-Royce/Turbomeca RTM322 engines that have been so effective in allowing the attack helicopter to operate in Afghanistan with its doughnut-shaped millimeter wave fire control radar and target acquisition system, as well as the Selex helicopter integrated defensive aid system (HIDAS).
While that decision was considered to allow the WAH-64D to be tailored more specifically to the requirements of the British Army, Boeing has continued to develop its original design through A and D models, to Block II and now AH-64E.
There is now no easy “shoe-in” for the UK Apaches to transition cheaply into the AH-64E upgrade. Whether in fact this capability will be required for the UK Apache mission in the future must now be one of the questions under consideration.
The shrinking defense budget and its consequential impact on the size of the UK’s armed forces may result in a new holistic way of operating the attack helicopters.
Cash underlined the fact that the UK Apache force has been operating in a counter-insurgency role since its first “premature” deployment back in 2006. While the effectiveness of the aircraft in fighting this kind of conflict is beyond question (considering it was originally conceived as a Cold War tank-killer), Cash said that the task of re-focusing the whole attack force back towards a broader mission capable readiness, including maritime, has already begun.
Budget cuts have already reduced the whole force down from five to four squadrons, split between two regiments. However, the recent maritime operational deployment on the Royal Navy’s helicopter carrier HMS Ocean during Operation Ellerby (the mission to rid Libya of Col. Gaddafi) proved that the force already has the flexibility and mind set to make the change.
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