Have Apache -Will Travel
The helicopter. The iconic symbol of the Vietnam war, even iconic in the opening scene of the hits 1970’s sitcom M*A*S*H. The Vietnam War, often described as the “helicopter war”, couldn’t have been fought without the advent and doctrine of Airmobile and MEDEVAC. Fast forward a decade and a half after the ending of the war in Southeast Asia. Particularly regarding the armed UH-1 or the “Huey Hog”, and the attack variant, the AH-1 cobra. Although both airframes wreaked significant and overwhelming havoc on the enemy, towards the latter years of the Vietnam War, the enemy learned how to shoot down the aerial modern marvels. This created the need for a more superior and higher altitude capable attack rotorcraft platform. This, with the military build-up by former US President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980’s, the Cold war threat necessitated a mass production of such a type of aircraft. The answer would be the AH-64 Apache.
Initially designed to counter the Soviet tank force, the AH-64 was intended to operate in the mountains of Europe, and through cat and mouse tactics, destroy enemy tanks, of which the Soviets had a numerical advantage over the United States and its NATO allies. Equipped with 16 hellfire missiles, it was theorized that two Apaches could destroy a Soviet tank battalion of 30 tanks. Of course, the Cold War never went hot, culminating with collapse of the former Soviet Union. The Apache achieved overwhelming success in Operation Desert Storm when it obliterated Soviet built Iraqi Republican Guard tanks. The success of the overall air campaign and air superiority of that war was largely accredited to the fact that the US led coalition fought a very brief and largely uncontested war. However, just a little over a decade later, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would be a much different tale.
This time around, enemy came out to fight and fight with a vengeance, using unconventional tactics. This had already been seen during the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan. Afghan rebels, equipped with US made and supplied shoulder mounted Stinger missiles, decimated soviet helicopters to the point of a hastened retreat and defeat, signaling the end of the Soviet threat. What this illustrated was that, equipped with the right weaponry, in the hands of a motivated individual, rotorcrafts can be very vulnerable, even with the most crude but effective methods. What the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown us that the future of rotorcraft has been called into question.
What would become of conventional rotorcraft operations in the event of the U.S. waging war against an evenly matched foe such as North Korea and China? With the proliferation of drones, as well as improvements of air defense artillery, Rotorcrafts are more vulnerable now than ever before. The Apache has already seen service beyond its expectancy. Currently the US Army does not plan to buy future versions of the Apache, the AH-64E in large quantities. Instead, it is focusing on redirecting funding to the Future Vertical Lift (FVL).
Slated to enter service in 2030, the FVL will eventually replace the UH-60 Blackhawk and the AH-64 Apache. The FVL is the result of a joint effort between Sikorsky and Boeing.
In order for the US to maintain global dominance and air superiority, it must be on the leading edge of technological growth and development. This translates into rapid response and an ever changing fleet of aircraft that must be able change with the ever changing dynamics of 21st Century warfare. Legacy rotorcraft are being held in question as conventional warfare is evolving. The remaining question is, how are we going to pay for it ? As the old saying goes, “you have to pay the cost to be the boss”. In a February 2017 Congressional House Armed Services Committee Hearing, Army Vice Chief of Staff General Daniel Allyn stated that, “Today, our Army stands ready to defend the United States and its interests. This requires sustained, predictable funding. To rebuild readiness today and prepare for tomorrow’s challenges, the Army has prioritized combined arms maneuver readiness against a peer competitor as we prepare to respond to our Nation’s security challenges. The difficult trade-offs in modernization and installation improvements reflect the hard realities of today’s fiscal constraints.” This is clearly an across the board issue as cost cutting measure must be undertaken. But at what compromise?
In lieu of recent events concerning a nuclear North Korea, a Heavy Aviation Reconnaissance Squadron have begun rotations to Korea, reestablishing full Combat Aviation Brigade capacity and capability on the Korean peninsula. General Allyn went on to state that, “An unintended consequence of current fiscal constraints is that the Army can no longer afford the most modern equipment, and we risk falling behind near- peers in critical capabilities. Decreases to the Army budget over the past several years significantly impacted Army modernization. Given these trends, and to preserve readiness in the short term, the Army has been forced to selectively modernize equipment to counter our adversary’s most pressing technological advances and capabilities. At the same time, we have not modernized for warfare against peer competitors, and today we risk losing overmatch in every domain”. This clearly puts the US in grave danger of not only being countered, but surpassed. At this junction, the US cannot afford to give any ground with regards to global dominance.
For now, the best possible answer is the production of the Sikorsky and Boeing joint endeavor SB≥1 Defiant. The Defiant will have a minimum cruising speed of 280 miles per hour and a hovering altitude of 6,000 feet while operating in 95◦ Fahrenheit conditions. This far exceeds the capabilities of the US Marine Corps’ AH-1Z Cobra with its maximum cruise speed of 184 mph. The combat radius of the Cobra is 150 miles, whereas the Apache’s radius is twice that before reaching bingo fuel levels.