With the UK little more than two years away from ending its combat involvement in Afghanistan, the British Army is looking for a decision on a potential capability sustainment programme (CSP) for its Westland/Boeing Apache AH1 attack helicopters.
The Army Air Corps (AAC) declared initial operating capability with its originally 67-strong Apache fleet in October 2004, but a modernisation is required due to the US Army's planned withdrawal of support by 2017 for the Block I AH-64D model on which it is based. The US service has an operational fleet of more than 600 Apaches, but is transitioning to using the Block III/E-model version of the rotorcraft.
"The AH CSP is designed to address the sustainment issue that this raises, and provide the required capability, training and support out to 2040," says Col Andrew Cash, commander of the army's attack helicopter force and 16 Air Assault Brigade.
"The technical options are being evaluated, and I expect a decision on the way ahead for assessment by early next year." A main investment decision should follow during 2014, the Ministry of Defence says.
Potential courses of action, he says, include: "Do nothing; do the minimum; technology insertion based on the current airframes; update to the US AH-64E standard, or this standard but with UK-specific equipment; or an entirely new replacement attack helicopter."
Organisational changes are also planned, with the AAC expecting to reduce its Apache force strength from five to four operational squadrons, to be divided between two regiments, plus an operational conversion unit. The move forms part of wider spending reductions as a result of the UK government's Strategic Defence and Security Review of late 2010.
First flown in combat in Afghanistan as part of the UK's Operation "Herrick" in May 2006, the UK's Apaches have accumulated more than 100,000 flight hours, also including an offensive contribution from the Royal Navy vessel HMS Ocean during the NATO-led operation in Libya in 2011.
The UK government has signalled its intention to halt combat activities in Afghanistan by 31 December 2014, which Cash says will place additional demand on the Apache fleet. "I envisage a wide range of roles for AH during that transition, particularly for escort and protection of the UK draw-down activity," he said during a lecture at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London on 20 November.
Longer-term, he adds: "We are already looking beyond Herrick. We need to relearn some sills, knowledge and capabilities."
This process will include developing the army's find/strike concept of operations for employing the Apache in conjunction with its future AgustaWestland Lynx Wildcat armed reconnaissance helicopters, he says.
Meanwhile, the army has formally retired the Apache which was damaged in a heavy landing in Afghanistan in 2008. The step reduces its AH1 inventory to 66 airframes.