While the Commonwealth’s requirements for a replacement armed reconnaissance helicopter (ARH) capability, to be acquired under Project Land 4503, have yet to be made public, maritime operations will no doubt form a key element.
The ADF has been developing an amphibious warfare capability for a number of years now and has recently certified an Air Combat Element (ACE), comprising all three of Army’s combat helicopters, for operations aboard the Navy’s two Landing Helicopter Dock ships, HMAS Adelaide and HMAS Canberra and the Landing Ship Dock (LSD) vessel, HMAS Choules.
The current ARH capability is represented by the Airbus Helicopters Tiger ARH, but Land 4503 seeks to replace the incumbent helicopter with a new platform from around the middle of the decade. Contenders include an upgraded version of the Tiger, together with the Bell AH-1Z Viper and Boeing’s AH-64E Apache attack helicopter. A request for Tender (RFT) is expected to be released in the fourth quarter of this year, at which time the Commonwealth’s specific requirements will be revealed.
The Apache has been widely deployed aboard US Navy amphibious warships and the British Army’s Leonardo Apache AH.1s (a license-built version, similar to the US Army’s AH-64D) has seen combat in Libya, operating from the deck of a Royal Navy vessel.
The Boeing AH-64E is the latest version of the Apache family, which first entered service, in AH-64A form, in 1986 and today the helicopter is in use with 16 countries around the world, with in excess of 2000 helicopters delivered. The US Army alone has a program of record for 791 AH-64Es.
The latest version offers a range of capabilities which the US manufacturer says makes it well suited for the maritime environment, including the Longbow fire control radar, which has recently undergone a significant technology insert to confer enhanced maritime capability.
The Apache was originally designed in the Cold War period as a counter to the threat of Soviet tanks on the plains of Europe, where NATO considered war would begin with a rapid and overwhelming armoured thrust westward.
The original AH-64A variant gave way to the AH-64D in the 1997 timeframe, which was the first version to include the Longbow radar and enhanced sensors. The Delta model remains in widespread use today with the US Army and international customers but, the increased capabilities it offered have been somewhat offset by increased weight over time. This was particularly highlighted in Afghanistan when it was often required to operate in ‘hot and high’ conditions.
The Apache has an extensive combat history, including the initial coalition strikes in Iraq during the first Gulf War and has been in continuous operation with the US Army and a number of its allies in the Middle East for several decades.
To redress the problems when operating in hot and high conditions and as part of the US Army’s ongoing modernisation program, which will take it out to 2060, the current production AH-64E, known as the Apache Guardian, was developed and entered service in 2011. Improvements over the earlier AH-64D include a new, cleaner and lighter fuselage and an uprated drive train which utilises face drive technology, capable of absorbing more power from the engine. This has allowed the Apache’s General Electric T700-GE-701C engines to be upgraded to the more powerful T700-GE-701D variant.
The -701C and -701D engines are actually capable of producing the same power but the former was downrated due to the less robust power drive train of the AH-64D.
AH-64E sales brochure specifications quote a Maximum Operating Weight of 23,000lbs (10,342kg), a maximum speed in excess of 150 knots (279 km/h) and a Service Ceiling of 20,000ft (6,096m).
The AH-64E also has a Link 16 Tactical Data Link and is capable of supporting Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T) operations. The latest software upgrade to the Longbow radar, known as Version 6.0, has also delivered the aforementioned maritime capability enhancement to the Apache’s sensor suite.
“We’ve brought the sports car performance back to the E-model Apache,” Terry ‘TJ’ Jamison, Boeing senior manager Vertical Lift, Global Sales and Marketing said to ADM. “Now with Version 6.0, with an emphasis on marinisation and the ability for that fire control radar to locate targets out at sea, taking into account various sea states, its ability to identify different classes of vessels – to locate and target those vessels – is an incredible capability that we didn’t have before.”
Baseline weapons include a 30mm gun, 70mm rockets and the AGM-114 Hellfire missile and while every helicopter delivered is also capable of employing AIM-92 Stinger air to air missiles the US Army, as the largest customer, has not adopted the weapon for its AH-64Es.
“The other thing Version 6.0 software does for the Apache is it extends the range of the fire control radar all the way out to 16km (from the 8km range of earlier software), so that opens up the opportunity for future munitions, such as the AGM-179 Joint Air to Ground Missile (JAGM), or (Rafael) Spike or others,” Jamison says. “Spike has been tested on the Apache and is an option for not only our US Army customer, but for our global customers as well.”
The AH-64E can be acquired as a new-build helicopter, but existing AH-64D customers also have the option of having their aircraft remanufactured by Boeing on its shared final assembly line in Phoenix, Arizona. The remanufacturing process discards the old fuselage and replaces in with a new structure which is manufactured either in South Korea by Korea Aerospace Industries, or in India by Tata.
Longbow radar and Version 6.0 software
The Longbow fire control radar is manufactured by Longbow LLC (LBL), a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman which actually began 35 years ago with the two manufacturer’s heritage companies, Martin Marietta and Westinghouse.
The radar itself has its heritage in the AN/APG-68 radar then in production for the General Dynamics F-16A Fighting Falcon, but is tailored for the low altitude, nap of the earth missions originally envisaged for the Apache in Europe, and designated AN/APG-78. Today almost 500 units have been delivered to customers worldwide.
The Longbow radar is complemented by Lockheed Martin’s AN/APR-48B Modernised Radar Frequency Interferometer (RFI), which is a passive sensor designed to detect, precisely identify, prioritise and locate radars in varying threat conditions. It also interacts with other Apache sensors, such as the Lockheed Martin Modernised Target Acquisition Designation Sight/Pilot Night Vision Sensor (M-TADS/PNVS), which is a long-range, precision engagement and pilotage electro-optical sensor used for day, night and adverse weather missions.
The Version 6.0 upgrade has added a new Radar Electronics Unit to the Longbow system, which adds the maritime capability to the Longbow’s baseline ground targeting, air targeting and training modes. Because the upgrade is software driven, it does not require an increase in the power output of the radar to double the detection range to 16km.
“When you look at the reconnaissance mission, you really need situational awareness and now, with a 16km range and a surveillance mode of 360 degrees, you can monitor 800 square kilometres of area or battlespace in a very quick timeframe, so the pilot is not having to look over his shoulder, or downrange, the radar is doing it for him quickly and accurately and, targets are detected and displayed to him. The Apache is a very integrated sensor and weapons suite,” Ron Stanislaw, International Programs manager - Land & Avionics of Northrop Grumman’s C4ISR Division said.
“The radar data can be linked directly to M-TADS to cue the EO/IR system to the target. That’s something unique to Apache and it is very valuable in rapidly understanding the situational awareness.”
During the Longbow’s Follow On Test and Evaluation II (FOTE II) activity conducted late last year, the radar successfully detected ‘numerous’ ground and maritime targets at ‘extended detection ranges’, which were engaged and destroyed by JAGM missiles fired from an AH-64E.
“One of the key discriminators of Apache is that ‘system of sensors’ approach, (including) the passive RFI sensor and its capability to passively detect air defence radars and detect them at very long ranges and hand them off to the radar for prosecution as a areal target or a real threat,” LBL president Jim Messina added. “Then, once the radar determines it, we have the capability to directly hand off to a missile and launch system from the radar or, if further prosecution of the target is required, then hand off the co-ordinates to the M-TADS so we can prosecute it visually. That system of systems approach is very powerful (and) I don’t believe any other platform provides that.”
Maritime operations in combat
The British Army initially trialled Apache operations from the deck of a warship in 2005 and again in 2009, when two helicopters conducted training aboard the Royal Navy’s (now retired) amphibious assault ship HMS Ocean in October 2009.
Two years later, British Army Air Corps Apaches embarked aboard the ship once again but this time to fly combat missions over Libya as part of the UK’s Operation Ellamy. Between May and August 2009, the Apaches completed around 25 missions, striking more than 100 targets on the ground.
The UK is arguably one of the leading countries in terms of shipboard operations with Apache and in June 2019 it began three days of trials aboard the Royal Navy’s new 65,000 tonne aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth.
The trials, known as Platform Ship Integration Testing, were conducted by the Army Air Corps’ 667 (Development & Trials) Sqn and were designed to ensure the Apache can safely operate, refuel and rearm on the ship’s deck.
The UK signed an FMS contract in 2016 for 50 AH-64E helicopters, to replace its current fleet of 66 AH.1s and it is expected that these new helicopters will be trialled aboard Royal Navy warships, including the Queen Elizabeth class carries, as the acquisition program matures.
“In terms of what makes a helicopter suitable for operations in the maritime domain, it’s controllability, power margin, tail rotor control and in general, any aircraft that is designed to operate on the battlefield, should already have these attributes, because they need to be able to operate out of wind to get to a firing solution,” Ben Lewis, Flight Operations manager for Boeing Defence UK (BDUK) said.
“Having good tail rotor authority is a big thing for maritime operations, because it allows you good directional control in different winds. Good tail rotor authority in general terms allows you to get on and off deck and Apache is very good in that respect.”
Lewis adds that command and control during maritime operations is undertaken by a lead ship which needs to receive, process and disseminate information rapidly. “Apache brings some of the best situational awareness tools, in terms of what it can see and what it can feed back into the command centre,” he said.
“In the Libya operation the UK Apaches had a high tempo and, using their sensors, they were able to go quite a way into a contested environment.”
Boeing Land 4503 proposal
Boeing Defence Australia (BDA) is proposing the AH-64E with version software for Army’s Land 4503 requirement and will offer a mix of Foreign Military Sales (FMS) and Direct Commercial Sale (DCS) methodology, which it says will provide the ADF with a cutting edge attack helicopter while maximising potential benefit to Australian industry.
The company has launched an ICN Gateway campaign to enable local companies to express their interest in a number of work packages offered. Known as the Boeing Rotorcraft Network Australia (BRNA), the portal went live in August 2019 and, according to BDA’s senior manager, program development, Steve Lovaszy, 133 Australian companies had registered under the 43 capabilities listed by the end of January 2020.
“This has allowed Australian companies to register their interest in supporting Boeing rotorcraft, and not just for future programs like Apache, but also our current programs like HATS (Helicopter Aircrew Training System) or (CH-47F) Chinook,” Lovaszy said to ADM. “The BRNA is a key initiative for us and it’s clearly an important aspect for our offer for Land 4503, to maximise Australian Industry Capability (AIC) and we’re certainly taking actions currently to investigate the capabilities that we’ll need to support this program and the opportunities here in Australia that can deliver that.”
In a further statement regarding Land 4503 sustainment strategy, BDA said that Apache will be delivered and sustained under the FMS/DCS mix to, “provide certainty in the Achievement of Initial Operational Capability (IOC) and Final Operational Capability (FOC) milestones. This solution leverages mature Military Off The Shelf (MOTS) products and services available through FMS to achieve initial operational milestones, before transitioning to local support services which will be contracted under direct commercial terms with Boeing Defence Australia.”
Boeing’s TJ Jamison maintains Apache is also competitive on price, due to the economies of scale provided by joining an FMS buy, despite what he calls a ‘superior combat overmatch’ in terms of capability when compared with current and future threats.
“That’s how we keep the cost down and how we keep to the schedule. We’re held to a very rigid schedule by the US Army to deliver helicopters, not just to them, but through FMS to our global customers. So, what we give you is a schedule and we make those deliveries on time (and) on target,” he said.
“We look at it as not only a very cost-effective solution, but a very cost-effective modernisation plan going forward. The US Army committed to a program of record of 791 aircraft, 1,200 world-wide. We have a production line that already has orders committed to 2028, we’re producing ten a month and we have about ten more international customers on the verge of selecting the Apache.
“That buys security, a sense of stability and a sense of certainty, for where this aircraft is today and where it’s going to in the future.”
This article first appeared in the April 2020 edition of ADM.