They have been on the receiving end of terrible press from the general media for years due to contractual shortcomings which pushed up programme costs and delayed the availability of a suitable training package, but the British Army's Westland/Boeing Apache AH1 attack helicopters are now receiving rave reviews after nine months of activity in southern Afghanistan.
The Army Air Corps's (AAC) 9 Regt currently maintains a force of eight Apaches and four Westland Lynx AH7 utility helicopters in the country, and has provided close quarters support to the army's 3rd Parachute Regiment and now the Royal Marines during operations against Taliban guerrillas. In some cases, its formidable 30mm cannon has been brought to bear on militants just 10m (32ft) in front of British troops, who clearly already have full trust in the abilities of the aircraft and the crews who fly them. You can read more about the Apache's recent performance in Flight International's News Focus article this week.
One officer from the 3rd Parachute Regiment who has witnessed the Apache's lethality from such close proximity says he felt more comfortable having the aircraft overhead during contact with the enemy than a fixed-wing asset such as the Royal Air Force/Royal Navy-operated BAE Systems Harrier GR7A. Despite what other army figures might famously write in their e-mails home, this isn't because the RAF is "utterly, utterly useless", but is because the Apache can remain on station looking over the shoulder of ground troops, providing a very evident presence to deter or take the fight to enemy combatants. And judging by some of the combat videos shown by the army during a recent media day at the AAC's Middle Wallop headquarters in Hampshire, even a 10-round burst from that cannon is more than enough to spoil your day.
I got the impression from 9 Regt pilots that they have been greatly frustrated by the lack of coverage that their exploits in Afghanistan have received from the mainstream press during the first nine months of UK Apache operations in the country. Maybe this is just because Iraq gets all the attention these days, but I suspect that rather like with the RAF's Eurofighter Typhoon, many journalists aren't interested in writing good news stories when something goes right after so many years of knocking.
Many people expected the Apache to fail on its debut tour of duty, due to the dusty conditions, ambient temperatures of up to 49ｰC (120ｰF) and the combined need to operate at altitudes approaching 10,000ft (3,050m). Many criticised the UK's decision to buy 67 of the aircraft, equip them all with mast-mounted Longbow fire-control radars and integrate Rolls-Royce Turbomeca RTM322 engines.
But despite the failings of the Ministry of Defence's original contract framework for the Apache, the army's experience in Afghanistan shows that planners for the large part got its configuration right. There can be little question that Boeing's AH-64D Apache Longbow is the best attack helicopter out there, and in the AH1 variant the UK has fielded some unique capabilities which make its aircraft even better in the Afghan arena than anything the US Army can bring to the fight.
Fair enough, the MoD's ｣3.1 billion ($6 billion) procurement and introduction of the Apache has at times fallen well short of the mark, but in the AH1 it now has a capability that will provide huge support to UK and coalition troops for many years to come. Perhaps it's time at last for the type - and the AAC - to receive a bit of hard-earned praise?