The Army took delivery of its first AH-64D Apache Block III attack helicopter on Wednesday, Boeing announced, the latest upgraded variant of the classic helo.
The Army has found it very difficult to design, build and field whole new helicopters, so it has tried to squeeze every last drop from the basic Apache design, which is getting onto almost 30 years old these days.
No matter, say the Army's aviation officials -- today's Block III variant is still the baddest kid on the block. Per Boeing's announcement:
"This is a remarkable achievement by a great Army-industry team, a giant leap for U.S. Army aviation, and a signal to aggressors around the world that the Apache continues its legacy as a formidable and highly effective weapon system," said Col. Shane Openshaw, U.S. Army Apache project manager. "I am proud to witness this program milestone achievement and honored to be part of the team that designs and builds the Apache attack helicopter. I know the value this aircraft brings to soldiers on the ground and in the air who defend freedom daily in combat zones and during peacekeeping missions around the globe."The Block III can fly higher and faster than earlier models and it comes equipped with all manner of new combat systems and silicon chips and such. Specifically, as Stripes' Seth Robson wrote, Block III crews will be able to operate unmanned aircraft from their helicopter cockpits, which Army commanders hope could be a huge asset on the battlefield.
The Apache will be the first aircraft where the pilots will be able to control drones, according to Lt. Col. Dan Bailey, an Apache pilot who is the Army’s project manager for the new attack helicopter. “It’s going to make a significant difference on the battlefield,” Bailey said. Crews flying the older Apaches often communicate with drone operators by radio during missions, said Bailey, who flew Apache missions in Iraq from 2006 to 2007. “A [drone] operator would talk us through what he was seeing, such as a building where insurgents were shooting from,” he said, “but a picture is worth 1,000 words.”It certainly could be -- in fact, the Block III could give the Army a helicopter that can serve as the "quarterback of the battlefield" ... now where have we heard that before?
Crews in the new Apaches will be able to see the same video that a drone operator sees on their screens. They will even be able to take control of a drone to fly it to way points and zoom its cameras and sensors in on targets, he said. “We can use the [drone] as a remote sensor to identify hostiles,” he said. “That [drone] is now part of our Apache but it is forward where we might not want to be. I think it is going to be a huge game changer for the Army.”
Boeing says it will produce 51 Block III Apaches at first under low-rate initial production. Under a roughly $700 million deal with the Army, the ultimate goal is to get to 690 helicopters, both newly built and upgraded from the existing fleet. With this and subsequent upgrades, the Army hopes it can keep its Apaches flying until 2040 -- ten years after it hopes to begin operating its new common helicopter.