Exploring the British Army’s new Apache helicopters

The British Army began testing the new Apache AH-64E models at Wattisham Flying Station at the beginning of 2022. The upgraded attack helicopter’s improved lethality and additional defensive suites provide a more effective capability. Norbert Neumann visits Wattisham and talks to Apache pilots, engineers and ground crew.

Alexandra Stickings: 

// Alex Giles, CCO at Iceni Labs

The British Army recently received the first 14 of its 50 new Boeing Apache AH-64E models and two of the three Longbow Crew Trainer simulated devices for the helicopters. It is carrying out test flights at Wattisham Flying Station, with the helicopters expected to reach operational capability early next year.

The AH-64E variant is set to replace the Apache AH Mark 1, which reaches its out-of-service date in 2024. The procurement of the new Apaches was announced in 2016. It reinforces the UK MOD’s ambitions laid out in the Defence Command Paper and the recent Future Soldier announcement to enhance the British Army’s capabilities. The purchase of the 50 new helicopters includes a $2.3bn training and support programme with Boeing until 2040, with £288m confirmed for the first pricing period in place until July 2025.

Flying the new Apache

The AH-64E is a multi-role combat helicopter with integrated avionics and weapons, as well as advanced digital communications that enable real-time, secure transfer of battlefield information to air and ground forces.

In the new Apaches, the picture is a lot clearer, almost like taking a picture on your phone.

The new models have improved sensors and lethality, upgraded weapons systems and improved communications compared with the Mark 1. The new Apache also boasts a top speed of 300km/h (186mph). Apache pilots have to go through an additional six-week course before they can fly the AH-64E, operations officer and pilot of the 662 Squadron Major Tom Anstey tells Global Defence Technology.

With a Longbow radar placed above the main rotor blades, the new models can detect 256 potential targets at once, prioritising the most urgent threats within seconds, at a distance of up to 16 km away. Establishing target priorities happens before take-off during a four to five-hour preparation process that ground crew, engineers and pilots conduct.

Communications specialist Corporal Haley Mills plays an important role in what the army calls advanced mission planning system (AMPS) and determining targets. She says: “During AMPS the aircrew will tell me what targets to put on the system and it will show up as a threat or otherwise.

“In the old system, it was more of a little black and white point on the display. In the new Apaches, the picture is a lot clearer, almost like taking a picture on your phone.”

But there is much more to the new software than visuals. US Army exchange officer and Apache pilot Jimmy Webb says: “Fighting with the new Apache vastly changed. There are software upgrades with the new kits such as AAG [air-to-air/air-to-ground] receiver, manned-unmanned teaming (MUMTs), all the different radio fits; we've got additional SATCOM and different private network and data sharing.

“All of that is increasing the speed at which we can share and receive data from other people and that allows us to do our job quicker, to be more effective and more lethal.”

The rotorcraft will be able to conduct MUMT missions in the future, meaning that Apache aircrew will be able to link not only to other Apaches and crewed aircraft but to uncrewed aerial systems (UAS) as well. By connecting to UAS cameras and sensors, Apache operators’ situational awareness will increase.

“It’s quite exciting as it’s quite new to me to be able to receive data from a UAS that is not only radio communications. The data will allow us to see the feed in the cockpit and then I will know what I’m looking at before I even get to a target,” Webb says.

The new sets of information and functions mean the number of tasks competing for a helicopter crew’s attention will rise, but digitalisation and automatic data processing will enable some other, older tasks to be carried out autonomously.

// The new model Apache AH-64Es have improved sensors and lethality, and upgraded weapons systems. Credit: Norbert Neumann.

AH-64E maintenance 

The first couple of Apache AH-64Es arrived in the UK from the US on 26 November 2020. But the US began using the variant in 2011 and it has been designed and equipped to offer common configuration. Thus, most British Army personnel working with or operating the AH-64E receive training from their US counterparts either in the US or in the UK.

This platform is now even easier to maintain.

Crew chief Petty Officer Stuart Isaksen is on exchange from the Royal Navy, currently based at Wattisham, to oversee and manage the engineering work and the handover of aircraft from maintenance to flying duties. He went to the US on the first training course in the summer of 2020, and more engineers followed to ensure a steady supply of qualified engineers.

He says: “This platform is now even easier to maintain [than the Mark 1] and there’s a lot of considerations and feedback between ourselves, Boeing and procurement.”

Many parts from the Mark 1 are used in the new models, which reduces production costs and targets sustainability.

“There are components which are interchangeable between the two models. [Limited] life components, for example, can only fly 1,000 hours,” Isaksen adds.

“If we sent an airframe across to America and that had only flown 50 of those 1,000 hours, then that component would be suitable to be fitted to the new aircraft with the correct procedures of life-tracking.”

The new Apache engines, drivetrains, larger main rotor blades and avionics will deliver a significant boost to the aircraft’s performance, but also change some aspects of maintenance and operations. But avionics is probably the most significant change within the platform, says avionics supervisor Corporal Craig Veryard.

“It's a complete upgrade of what was previously on the Mark 1 in terms of the capability of the radar, sighting systems, even the general computing system and radios. Everything has changed and is completely the next evolution in its capability,” he explains.

// Main image: The British Army recently received the first 14 of the 50 new Boeing Apache AH-64E models. Credit: MOD Crown copyright.