Nine months into its first operational deployment using the Westland/Boeing Apache AH1 attack helicopter, the British Army has issued a glowing report into the type's performance in the southern Afghan provinces of Kandahar and Helmand. Deployed to the region in April 2006, the aircraft had by late last year amassed almost 2,200 flying hours and conducted numerous strikes against Taliban guerrillas as part of the army's ongoing commitment to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.
Eight Apaches and four Westland Lynx AH7 utility helicopters are deployed to Kandahar airfield and forward at the UK's Camp Bastion site in Helmand province as part of its Joint Helicopter Force Afghanistan, which also comprises eight Royal Air Force Boeing CH-47 Chinook HC2 transports.
UK Apaches have attacked Taliban militants within 10m of friendly forces
The army commitment to the UK's Operation Herrick is being met by the Army Air Corps' (AAC) 9 Regt, based at Disforth in Yorkshire, with aircraft and personnel provided by its 656 and 664 squadrons.
A typical Apache mission involves deploying two aircraft from Camp Bastion - where four of the aircraft are typically available - to provide support for British and coalition ground forces or the Afghan national police targeted by Taliban militants. Once located and positively identified, these are usually engaged with 10-round bursts from the aircraft's 30mm cannon. AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles have also been used.
Armaments expended by the UK's Apaches in Afghanistan by December included 28 semi-active laser and radar-guided Hellfires, 65 CRV-7 unguided rockets tipped with high-explosive fragmentation charges or anti-personnel flechettes, and 9,100 cannon rounds. WO2 Steve Jones from 664 Sqn says pilots fly an average of one sortie a day, but this can surge to three or four missions if required. The aircraft also regularly support multinational brigade-sized operations such as resupply and support missions. "It has made a big difference flying Apache out there so far," he says.
The Apache's extended mission endurance of up to 2h 45min in Afghanistan is achieved through the use of an internal auxiliary fuel tank. This requires the AH1 to carry a reduced load of ammunition for its cannon: 600 high-explosive dual-purpose rounds, against a full load of over 1,100.
"On battlegroup operations commanders wouldn't proceed without attack helicopters," says Capt Mark Swann from the army's 3rd Parachute Regiment, which received support from AH1s during its deployment to Afghanistan last year. "They are better than the [BAE Systems] Harrier, as they can stay with the guys on the ground," he adds. In some instances, Apaches have been called on to suppress hostile forces with cannon fire as little as 10m (32ft) in advance of friendly troops. "It is testament to the proficiency of the crews and their confidence in the Apache's weapon systems that they were able to provide this level of battle-winning support," the army says.
Each aircraft operates with one of its crew members also having trained as a joint terminal attack controller, with this experience in working in close proximity with ground forces greatly reducing the risk of so-called "friendly fire" incidents. While such close quarters activity is at odds with the AAC's previous manoeuvre warfare concept for using the Apache, 9 Regt pilots say their conversion training and a pre-conflict work-up in Oman (Flight International, 7-13 February 2006) have succeeded in meeting operational demands.
"People say it has exceeded expectations, but it didn't exceed ours: we trained on it and knew it would do the job," said one 9 Regt pilot during a briefing on the Apache's performance at the Directorate of Army Aviation's Middle Wallop headquarters in Hampshire last month. "We are clearly delivering in Helmand."
As well as operating in conjunction with RAF and Royal Navy Harrier GR7As, the Apaches also routinely work with US Air Force Fairchild A-10 ground-attack aircraft and Boeing B-1B bombers, plus US Navy Boeing F/A-18s. "We will work with whoever is there," says one pilot. "It's a team sport."
The British Army Apaches in Afghanistan have used Longbow fire-control radar, unlike the US Army, which deploys only AH-64As to the country. Employed to improve situational awareness by locating vehicles and friendly forces on the ground and Chinooks in the air, the radar has provided great utility. "I would feel naked flying without it," says one British pilot.
The UK aircraft have been unaffected by Afghanistan's fine dust, while their Rolls-Royce Turbomeca RTM322 engines have also provided hot and high performance superior to the US Army's Apaches in air temperatures up to 49°C (120°F) and at altitudes up to 10,000ft (3,000m).
None of the UK's Apaches have been hit by ground fire, but heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades have been fired at the aircraft. They have yet to encounter surface-to-air missiles, which are known to be in Taliban hands.
The army's second Apache unit - 3 Regt - will be declared operational at Wattisham in Suffolk in May with a further two squadrons comprising eight aircraft each. The service will eventually have three frontline regiments accounting for 48 of its 67 Apaches. The AgustaWestland/Boeing Aviation Training International school at Middle Wallop provides 3,600h of conversion to type training a year for eight to 24 students per six-month course, before they progress to undergo conversion to role work at Dishforth and Wattisham.