Apache AH1, worth it or not?

Apache Helicopter

We were having an interesting chat about the acquisition on another post recently and we veered onto the subject of the Westland Apache AH1, problems with its introduction and potential for the forthcoming upgrade programme, probably a UK specific version of the US Block III programme.

I do wonder if as a concept, the attack helicopter is all it is cracked up to be, a throwback to another era and for a given and finite future budget, whether we could get more for less elsewhere?

Elsewhere does not necessarily mean another attack helicopter or even helicopter at all by the way, focus on capabilities, guns, rockets, missiles and eyes on.

There is no doubt it is expensive, there is even less doubt the sustainment and upgrade programme will be budget constrained and will take an increasing percentage of the armed forces wide rotary aviation budget as Gazelle and Lynx gradually disappear and Wildcat comes into service.

A handful of relevant parliamentary questions;

Question

Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East, Conservative)

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what assessment he has made of the performance of Apache during Operation Ellamy.

Answer

Gerald Howarth (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (International Security Strategy), Defence; Aldershot, Conservative)

Apache helicopters performed well on Operation Ellamy, deploying from HMS Ocean for the first time, and made a substantial contribution to the NATO mission to enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1973 and protect the civilian population of Libya.

Question

Richard Drax (South Dorset, Conservative)

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what recent discussion he has had with representatives of Augusta-Westland on the contract to build Apache helicopters.

Answer
Peter Luff (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Defence Equipment, Support and Technology), Defence; Mid Worcestershire, Conservative)

No requirement currently exists to add to the Army Air Corp’s fleet of Apache attack helicopters. The Ministry of Defence is engaged in the concept phase of a Capability Sustainment Programme to address our future attack helicopter capability requirement and how it will be sustained to 2040.

As part of the Concept Phase, informal discussions are taking place with potential contractors to inform the range of options which will be taken forward into the Assessment Phase. The Project Team have had initial meetings with representatives of AgustaWestland, who have been encouraged to continue to work with the MOD to help develop our analysis.

Question

Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East, Conservative)
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what his policy is on the wet assembly for the Apache helicopter; what estimate he has made of the associated costs; and if he will make a statement.

Answer

Philip Dunne (Ludlow, Conservative)

The current Apache AH Mk1 aircraft are based on the US Army Apache AH64D. In common with those aircraft, the Apache AH MK1 airframes were dry-built. There is currently no engineering solution available, and therefore no cost information, for undertaking a retro-wet assembly of the in-service aircraft airframes. They have, however, been treated with a two stage protection process to reduce the effects of corrosion and maintain the airworthiness of the aircraft in the maritime operating environment.

Question

Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East, Conservative)
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what his policy is on the number of operational Apache helicopters; and if he will make a statement.

Answer

Philip Dunne (Ludlow, Conservative)

The Army Air Corps operates a fleet of 66 Apache helicopters, which meets the current operational requirement for Attack Helicopters.

Apache, which is currently supporting operations in Afghanistan, has been in service with the Army since 2001 and is due to undergo a capability sustainment programme in the near future. This upgrade will ensure the capability remains in service out to 2040. The number of aircraft to be upgraded as part of this programme will be based on an assessment of the future operational requirement and will be decided at the main investment decision point, which is currently planned for 2014.

One aircraft was recently removed from the fleet having been assessed as beyond repair as a result of damage sustained following a heavy landing on operations in 2008. The damage was not caused as a result of enemy action and neither pilot was injured in the incident.

Question

Jim Murphy (East Renfrewshire, Labour)
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence pursuant to the Statement of 14 May 2012, Official Report, columns 261-4, on defence budget and transformation, what helicopter capabilities are part of the Core Equipment Programme.

Answer

Philip Dunne (Ludlow, Conservative)
The helicopter capabilities in the Core Equipment Programme consist of current in-service capabilities plus the following equipment programmes and their support and training costs:

  • Chinook Mk6 New Buy
  • Apache Capability Sustainment Programme
  • Merlin Capability Sustainment Programme
  • Puma Life Extension Programme
  • Falkland Island Search and Rescue and Support Helicopter
  • Wildcat—Army and Navy variants

Question

Lee Scott (Ilford North, Conservative)
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what consideration he is giving to the procurement of an alternative model of attack helicopter if the Apache AH-64D cannot be upgraded at an acceptable price.

Abswer

Philip Dunne (Ludlow, Conservative)
The Attack Helicopter Capability Sustainment Programme is currently in its concept phase. All viable options are being investigated to maintain operational attack helicopter capability and no decisions have been made.

Question

Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East, Conservative)

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what assessment he has made of the effects on air worthiness of the Apache helicopters flown from HMS Ocean during Operation Ellamy.
Hansard source (Citation: HC Deb, 23 October 2012, c809W)

Answer

Philip Dunne (Ludlow, Conservative)

The Apache helicopters used on Operational Ellamy were modified and cleared to support maritime operations prior to their deployment on HMS Ocean. The modifications made were to improve their resistance to corrosion and to include a solution to disperse sea spray in the windscreen wiper system. They underwent pre-deployment maintenance and inspections and, on return to the UK, usual post embarkation maintenance was conducted as well as an additional aircraft condition survey. Any corrosion experienced was within normal tolerance levels and the aircraft remained fully airworthy; this corrosion has now been treated. Deployed aircraft will continue to be monitored during routine maintenance activities.

Question

Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East, Conservative)

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence

(1) when he plans that the Apache helicopter will be upgraded to utilise the Brimstone missile system;

(2) what plans he has to marinise the Apache helicopter;

(3) what the total number of Apaches in use is; and how many are earmarked for upgrade.

Answer
Peter Luff (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Defence Equipment, Support and Technology), Defence; Mid Worcestershire, Conservative)

The Army Air Corps currently operates a fleet of 67 Apache helicopters. The number of aircraft to be upgraded through the Capability Sustainment Programme will be decided at the main investment decision, which is currently planned for 2014.

While not originally designed as a maritime helicopter, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) has modified and cleared the Apache to support operations from the maritime environment as demonstrated from HMS Ocean on Operation Ellamy. The modifications included wet-sealing the aircraft to resist corrosion and modifying the windscreen wipers to include a solution to disperse sea spray. We are also currently in an assessment phase to fit flotation equipment to increase safety when operating over water.

The Apache is currently armed with variants of the Hellfire missile which are due to go out of service in 2021-22. The MOD will look at various options as a replacement to this capability. The successor to Brimstone, the 50kg class Spear Capability 2 Block 3 missile, will be one of the options considered as a replacement.

Question

Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East, Conservative)
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence whether the Apache helicopter will be able to be moved by lift below deck on the Queen Elizabeth class carrier without the need to manually fold its rotor blades.

Answer

Philip Dunne (Ludlow, Conservative)
The Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers will be able to transport an Apache helicopter with its rotors fully spread from the flight deck to the hangar and vice-versa using the aircraft lifts. Depending on the number of aircraft embarked, the rotor blades of Apache helicopters may be manually folded prior to entering the hangar to maximise storage space.

This post isn’t to replay the decision taken many years but to consider these issues

  1. Apache costs a great deal to run, the quoted flying cost of £46k per hour as we know, includes all sorts of costs but in comparison with other types of fixed and rotary aircraft, it is still near the top. Gazelle is £2k and Tornado £25k using the same quoted tables.
  2. Anecdotaly, it is maintenance heavy
  3. It has been battered from many years of continuous use
  4. It’s avionics are not to the latest standards and will need an expensive upgrade
  5. Maintenance costs of the upgraded version are not clear because it will be a UK specific upgrade
  6. It will need additional and costly modifications to improve utility at sea

It doesn’t matter how much it cost, it doesn’t matter whether it was the correct decision or not and it doesn’t matter how undoubtedly awesome it is or what the Taleban call it.

We need to think about the future, an expensive one if we go down the upgrade and sustain route.

It might be heresy to question the value for money of the Apache upgrade but am going to ask it anyway.

Playing devils advocate for a moment, and don’t take this as a proposal as such, what would we lose, what disadvantages would we suffer, if we;

  • Withdrew all Apache
  • Increased the purchase number of Wildcat
  • On the Army version, where the Navy versions radar is, inserted the Nexter THL-20mm cannon
  • Integrated Brimstone, CRV-7 and LMM

As a starter for ten, the situational awareness of the tandem seating position, Longbow and armour but think of the cost savings of withdrawing completely an aircraft type (think back to Harrier v Tornado, you only save big time by withdrawing a fleet) and what that would get you in terms of airframe numbers and weapons integration.

It should be obvious that like for like, it would be a big step down but given the kinds of operations most likely and the big impacts on the budget of upgrading and sustaining the current fleet of Apache AH1, surely it is worth asking that heretical question.

We might even ask if it needs to be rotary at all, combinations of unmanned systems, precision ground launched weapons and even fixed wing might offer a better and/or cheaper alternative.

It is a question we need to ask, even if the answer is Apache

Thoughts?

[Google the Romanian IAR 330 SOCAT]

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