The UK Ministry of Defence could delay by up to two years a decision on which air-to-air missile (AAM) to procure for the McDonnell Douglas/GKN Westland WAH-64 Longbow Apache helicopter.

When the decision to buy the WAH-64 was announced in July 1995, it was expected that the AAM choice would be taken by early 1997, following a series of tests of the Shorts Starstreak hypervelocity missile on the Apache.

The UK MoD, in concert with the US Department of Defense (DoD), intends to carry out a further two years testing the Starstreak on the helicopter. It could wait until the end of these trials before finally choosing which weapon to procure for the Army Air Corps attack helicopter.

The DoD is now negotiating with Shorts over a single-source contract covering the follow-on phase. Deferring a decision until then, say sources, would still allow an AAM-equipped helicopter to enter service at the end of 2000.

Although the Starstreak is the MoD's "preferred solution", the Hughes Stinger and the Matra BAe Dynamics Mistral remain competitors for the UK. A new US Army requirement is also emerging.

The US Army has drafted a Mission Need Statement (MNS) which calls for improved air-to-air capability for the AH-64. According to the draft MNS, "-the Stinger suffers limitations when mounted on an aircraft, including longer-than-desired engagement time-lines, and it does not provide advantages against other aerial threats."

The US Army's Aviation Applied Technology Directorate, at Fort Eustis, Virginia, is handling weapons/aircraft integration and is conducting the Air-To-Air Starstreak (ATASK) programme.

Under an initial research phase, which has been completed, the Starstreak was integrated with the aircraft, with six firings from the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. The first firing resulted in access panels opening on the helicopter caused by the acoustic shock. This was rectified for the remaining firings.

More importantly, none of the firings resulted in any debris damage from the missile launch. This has been one of the main concerns about using the Starstreak in the air-to-air role. US Army officials say that preliminary analysis of the data indicates that the Apache testbed was not hit by missile debris.

The second phase of the ATASK project will include guided-missile launches against drone targets. The UK MoD will provide 20 fully-functional Starstreaks for two years of additional flight testing.

Source: Flight International