British Army stands up first Apache regiment

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The British Army has declared its first regiment of 16 Boeing/Westland Apache AH1 attack helicopters ready for operational deployment, while the UK Ministry of Defence has ordered its first major systems upgrade for the type since it entered service in January 2001.

Declared ready on 25 May following its successful involvement in Exercise Eagles Strike alongside infantry, artillery and engineering units, 9 Regiment Army Air Corps comprises two eight-aircraft squadrons based at Dishforth, Yorkshire. The unit is the first of three Apache-equipped regiments to be assigned to the UK's 16 Air Assault Brigade by 2007.

Meanwhile, the MoD has contracted AgustaWestland to upgrade the 67-strong AH1 fleet with Lockheed Martin Arrowhead modernised target acquisition designation Sight/Pilot Night Vision Sensor (MTADS/PNVS). Announced late last year (Flight International, 12-18 October 2004), the fleet-wide targeting improvement will be completed by late 2010 under a deal worth £194 million ($355 million), including $212 million for Lockheed.

The army says the MTADS/PNVS upgrade will deliver significant cost savings and capability improvements over the existing system. The enhancement is the first in a series of upgrades that could keep the UK's Apaches in service beyond 2030, says Brig Gary Coward, the MoD's director equipment capability for air and littoral manoeuvre. A capability sustainment programme (CSP) will be launched around 2015 to integrate an open systems avionics architecture to facilitate future incremental modernisation, to coincide with the later phase of the US Army's Block III Apache upgrade.

The CSP could also introduce new variants of the AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missile with increased range, different seekers and new warheads, and possibly a "sub-Hellfire" precision-strike capability to replace the Apache's unguided CRV-7 rockets for commitments such as peace support operations, says Coward.

A major life-extension upgrade will be required around 2024 if the UK decides to extend operations of the type beyond its current 2030 out-of-service date, Coward told April's Royal Aeronautical Society Aerospace 2005 conference in London.

The MoD says there are "no immediate plans to operationally deploy the aircraft to Iraq or Afghanistan", but an army source notes: "I would be surprised if this capability isn't deployed soon."

The UK last week awarded AgustaWestland a four-year contract worth £115 million to provide logistics support for its Apache fleet.

CRAIG HOYLE/LONDON