The U.S. Army recently announced the latest version of their iconic helicopter gunship, the AH-64E Apache V6, has entered service.
Purpose-built to defeat enemy armor, personal, and reconnaissance, the AH-64 Apache has been one of the world’s most fearsome attack helicopters for decades. As Patrick Stewart humorously said in the comedy film Ted, “nothing is more powerful than a young boy’s wish. Except for an Apache helicopter. An Apache helicopter has machine guns AND missiles. It is an unbelievably impressive complement of weaponry, an absolute death machine.”
The new Apache V6 hosts multiple improvements to communications, navigation, sensor, and weapon systems to dramatically increase aircrew’s situational awareness and ability to perform maritime missions.
While The Pentagon continues to move forward with its Future Vertical Lift initiative, the Army still considers the AH-64 a formidable complement to its arsenal.
Let’s examine what makes the AH-64 such an impressive military aircraft and what’s new with the Apache V6.
From the AH-54 Cheyenne to the AH-64E Apache V6
Had the Soviet Union decided to launch a major offensive attack on Western Europe during the Cold War, NATO planners envisioned the most likely scenario would involve a massive tank offensive through the Fulda Gap in West Germany, capturing Frankfurt and continuing westward towards the Rhineland.
To defend against the potential threat of a Soviet invasion, in 1960, the U.S. Army launched the Advanced Aerial Fire Support System Program, which fielded the Army’s first dedicated attack helicopter – the Lockheed AH-56 Cheyenne.
While the Cheyenne was being developed, one of the most prolific military helicopters ever built, the Bell UH-1 Iroquois (commonly known by its nickname “Huey”) was busy radically changing the face of modern warfare in the Vietnam War.
Rather than standing and fighting long battles, the Huey allowed for a highly mobile air cavalry, making it possible to choose the times and places battles could be fought.
The Huey’s biggest draw-back was its high vulnerability to small arms fire whenever it came down to drop-off troops in a landing zone. With the AH-54 Cheyenne facing delays and difficulties getting off the ground, in 1965, the U.S. Army issued a need for the rapid development of a light-weight attack helicopter to defend and escort the vulnerable Hueys.
Answering the call, Bell Helicopter pitched the Army their light-weight, single-engine, helicopter gunship: the “Model 209.” Accepting Bell’s design, in 1967, the Model 209 entered service as the Army’s interim attack helicopter- the AH-1 “Cobra.”
As the Vietnam War began to wind down in the late 1960s, The Pentagon turned its focus back toward fielding an aircraft capable of being a threat to heavy-armored vehicles. Things, however, were not going smoothly with AH-56 Cheyenne.
Lockheed’s attack helicopter took its first flight in 1967. However, two years later, it had yet to reach operational readiness. In March of 1969, the program suffered a crippling setback when a problem with the helicopter’s rotor control system caused the rotor to strike the fuselage, causing the aircraft to crash, killing test pilot David A. Beil. A month later, the Army canceled further development of the Cheyenne, citing technical problems and delayed progress.
Technical problems weren’t the only issues that plagued the Cheyenne program. Disagreements between the Air Force and the Army over close-air-support doctrine had caused deep political friction between the branches
The Air Force viewed the Army’s development of a heavy anti-armor attack helicopter to be an infringement upon their close air support role, mandated by the Key West Agreement of 1948. The Air Force equally had concerns with NATO’s move to adopt a strategy of using anti-tank helicopters instead of nuclear-armed tactical aircraft as a primary anti-armor deterrent.
In 1973, a Department of Defense study determined that the Air Force’s plans for a close-air-support aircraft and the Army’s hopes of fielding an attack helicopter weren’t in conflict with each other. Still mainstays of their respective branches, two of the most storied military aircraft in modern history would emerge.
For the Air Force, it was the A-10 Thunderbolt, commonly referred to by the nickname “Warthog.” For the Army, the Hughes YAH-64 prototype would eventually enter service as the AH-64 Apache.
The AH-64 Apache, America’s Premier Helicopter Gunship
Taking its first flight in 1975, the Boeing AH-64 Apache has proved to be one of the most capable attack helicopters ever built.
With a four composite-blade main and four-blade tail rotor design, powering the AH-64 are two General Electric T700 turboshaft engines, featuring high-mounted exhausts on either side of the fuselage. Current AH-64E models use the upgraded T700-GE-701D engines, allowing for a maximum cruise speed of 284 kilometers per hour, or 152 knots. Capable of generating nearly 2,000 horsepower, the AH-64’s powerful engines give the Apache a high-degree of maneuverability. More akin to a fighter jet, the AH-64 can perform barrel rolls and loop formations to evade enemy weapon systems.
The aircrew sits in tandem, with the pilot sitting behind and slightly above the gunner/co-pilot. Both crew members are capable of flying and engaging the Apache’s weapon systems. Crew members wear the Integrated Helmet and Display Sight System (IHADSS), which allows either pilot or gunner to slave the Apache’s weapon systems to follow the movement of the pilot’s head as they look around.
The entire AH-64 is made of boron plated structural steel armor. The Apache’s heavy covering allows the helicopter to be capable of withstanding 12.7mm caliber rounds commonly used by anti-aircraft guns mounted on tanks and armored vehicles. The main rotor and engine are further reinforced with kevlar lining, allowing these critical components to withstand incoming fire of up to 23mm armor-piercing rounds. A heavy bulletproof glass canopy shields pilots. In the event of a crash, the Apache’s cockpit structure will crumble to absorb the force of impact away from the aircrew.
With a mission set that includes: attack, movement to contact, reconnaissance, and security, many sophisticated avionics are integrated into current AH-64E “Guardian” (formerly known as the AH64D Block III) models.
One of the electronics that bolsters the AH-64E Guardian’s prowess is Northrop Grumman’s AN/APG-78 Longbow fire-control radar (FCR). Providing ground, air, and recently added maritime targeting modes, the Longbow FCR possesses the ability to scan, detect, locate, and classify up to 256 simultaneous moving and stationary targets. From these, the Longbow system prioritizes the top 16 targets for immediate evaluation and, if necessary, engagement by the aircrew.
Complementing the Longbow FCR is the nose-mounted Lockheed Martin Modernized Target Acquisition and Designation Sight/Pilot Night Vision Sensor (M-TADS/PNVS), also known as the “Apache Arrowhead.” The M-TADS provides 2nd generation long-wave forward-looking infrared (FLIR), three fields of view – including integrated TV camera and dual field of view pilotage FLIR. The Arrowhead system also provides electro-optical target tracking, auto-boresights, laser range finders, and laser designations. The M-TADS sophisticated sensors allow the Apache to fly, limited sight, in extreme weather conditions such as snow or dust storms.
In 2012, a limited number of D-model AH-64s were equipped with the Ground Fire Acquisition System (GFAS), which automatically detects and targets ground-based weapons fire sources within a 120-degree field of view and in all-light conditions. Using a thermographic camera, the GFAS can precisely locate the muzzle flashes from small-arms fire coming from the ground.
AH-64E models also incorporate the Joint Tactical Information Distribution System, allowing improved data communications amongst air, land, and maritime joint forces. Lots 5 and 6 of the AH-65E are also equipped with the Link 16 data-links, providing secure, tactical joint forces communication amongst NATO member states.
The Apache has an advanced suite of integrated electronic countermeasures to protect the helicopter from potential or incoming threats. The ALQ-144 infra-red jammer, fitted on top of the Apache, can stop or break missile lock-on and steer an incoming missile away from the helicopter. The Apache is also outfitted with the “Blackhole Infrared Suppression System.” The Blackhole cuts exhaust temperatures in half and rotates exhaust upward, significantly reducing the ability for infra-red sensors and missiles to “see” the Apache.
In terms of armament, the AH-64 Apache has four hardpoints mounted on stub-wings. The Apache can carry various mission-specific loadout configurations, including up to 16 AGM-114L “Longbow Hellfire” anti-tank missiles. The Longbow Hellfire missiles are guided by the Longbow radar system and nose-mounted M-TADS/PNVS and can destroy ground targets at a range of 8000 meters, or nearly 5 miles away.
The Apache can also carry up to 76, Hydra-70 general-purpose unguided 70mm rockets, offering a maximum engagement range of 11,500 meters, or close to 6.5 miles away. The Apache’s primary weapons system is the chin-mounted M230 chaingun turret. With up to 1,200 30mm rounds, the M230 can fire up to 625 rounds-per-minute (RPM) at an effective range of 1,500 meters, or nearly a mile away.
Two wingtip stations on the AH-64 can be outfitted with a total of four (two on each wingtip) AIM-92 Stinger Air-to-Air missiles, allowing the Apache the ability to engage enemy aircraft. Stinger missiles are rarely outfitted on U.S. Apaches. However, non-U.S. users, which lack many air superiority aircraft, will often carry them. Initially, the current AH-64E model could not carry Stinger missiles; however, later production blocks re-added the capability at South Korea’s request.
External fuel tanks can also be outfitted on the AH-64’s stub-wing pylons, increasing the Apache’s range and mission time.
Since its introduction into service in 1984, the AH-64 Apache has played a crucial role in every U.S. military engagement in the last 37 years, beginning with the invasion of Panama, known as Operation Just Cause, in 1989.
In addition to the United States, sixteen allied nations have purchased and added export Apaches to their fleets, including the United Kingdom, Israel, Egypt, Japan, India, and South Korea. In 2020, the U.S. State Department and Congress approved the purchase of six AH-64E attack helicopters by the Philippines, for an estimated cost of $1.5 billion.
Over its 46 year lifespan, there have been five different production variants of the Apache, with the current model being the AH-64E. The Apache V6 is the sixth and most recent version of the AH-64E. Presently, there are no plans to develop a new F-model variant. Boeing’s production line for the AH-64E is scheduled to end in 2026.
Current DoD “Future Vertical Lift” plans call for the design and development of five different sized vertical lift aircraft to eventually replace the UH-60 Blackhawk, CH-47 Chinook, Oh-58 Kiowa, and AH-64 Apache. Presently, the Army is expecting the still conceptual future vertical lift platforms to be online by 2030.
What’s New With the Apache V6?
In 2014, China’s aggressive expansion in the South China Sea and Russia’s seizure of Crimea caused the United States to shift its defense focus from fighting insurgencies in the Middle East to be capable of facing a traditional near-peer military opponent.
Changes in the defense landscape have been the primary driver of the final Apache variant – the AH-64E “Guardian.”
Breaking development into three block upgrades, the V1 and V4 AH-64E updates were completed in 2015 and 2017. The final and most ambitious update, the V6, began development in 2018.
Five years earlier than initially expected, in the last week of January 2021, the Army announced that the first six brand-new Apache V6s had entered service. As promised, the new Apache V6 boasts a slew of new features to meet the modern battlefield demands.
Mounted on the nose of the Apache V6 is the latest iteration of Lockheed-Martin’s Modernized Target Acquisition Designation Sight/Pilot Night Vision system or M-TADS/PNVS. The MTADS/PNVS is an electro-optical, multi-sensor targeting system that affords the Apache V6 the ability to fly and perform precision engagements day or night and in adverse weather conditions.
Sitting atop the sensor assembly is the Modernized Pilot Night Vision Sensor or M-PNVS.
The M-PNVS is a longwave, hi-definition forward-looking infrared (FLIR) system that provides a 52-degree field of view to the Apache V6’s cockpit and pilot’s helmet displays in situations of near-total darkness and limited visibility, such as heavy rain or dust storms. Connected with the IHADSS helmet, the M-PNVS follows a pilot’s head movements giving them a field of view consistent with the direction they are physically looking.
The M-PNVS also includes the Electronic Image Intensified television or EI2-TV. The EI2-TV is a low-light-level, near-infrared camera that further intensifies visibility and allows aircrews to see laser-target designators or infrared strobes displayed by ground troops.
Below the M-PNVS is the Modernized Target Acquisition Designation (M-TADS) system, split into two separate, distinct pieces of hardware.
On the left of the assembly is the Modernized Night Sensor Assembly or M-NSA. As the name suggests, the M-NSA is a targeting system designed for nighttime or low-light situations. The system offers three increasingly magnified fields of view, allowing Apache V6 pilots to detect, recognize, and engage targets from great distances. The M-NSA can also provide a wide field of view, giving pilots a secondary piloting system in typically low visibility situations.
To the right of the M-NSA is the Modernized Day Sensor Assembly or M-DSA. Out of all the new features, the upgraded Generation 3 M-DSA has been most hailed by Army pilots as the biggest game-changer of the new Apache V6.
With previous legacy day-sensor targeting systems, pilots had a monochrome, black-and-white imagery at their disposal. However, now for the first time, the new GEN3 M-DSA will bring high-resolution, full-color imagery to the TADS Electronic Display and Control system (TEDAC) in the Apache V6’s cockpit. Doubling the field of view of legacy targeting systems and offering a hi-def 64k color display, aircrews will now be able to quickly detect and identify targets based on their actual visual description.
“The GEN3 DSA is a real game changer. It puts the Apache into a position where our sensors are out ranging our weapon systems. We can identify targets before we are even in range to shoot them which allows us to better leverage long range precision fires from other platforms and reduce our signature,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Sven Anderson, a Battalion Standardization Instructor pilot.
To meet current strategic demands, specifically the concern of potential conflict with China’s massive naval forces, the Apache V6 comes with a host of upgrades to increase the gunship’s ability to operate in maritime environments.
While the M-DSA’s full-color display is impressive, the addition of Lockheed-Martin’s AN/APR-48B Modernized Radar Frequency Interferometer (M-RFI) significantly increases the Apache V6’s ability to operate and survive in environments contested by modern traditional military forces.
With the M-RFI, the AH-64’s ability to detect and identify radar-based threats is doubled from 8 km to 16 km. With an increased range of 16 km ( 9.9 miles) and a 360-degree range of coverage, the Apache V6 will now be able to monitor 800 square kilometers or nearly 500 miles of battlespace.
By detecting and geolocating radar emissions at longer distances, the upgrade will significantly enhance the Apache V6’s ability to perform Suppression of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD) missions and improve overall survivability when facing advanced enemy air defenses.
An additional maritime capability has been added to Longbow’s existing ground and air targeting modes. With these new sensor upgrades, the Apache V6 will now track and engage small maritime targets, such as fast attack and landing vessels.
Improving the AH-64’s ability to operate over a featureless ocean, installation on an improved antenna will allow the Apache V6 to utilize radio beacon-based area navigation (RNAV) and the Tactical Air Navigation System (TACAN).
Following plans outlined by the Future Airborne Capability Environment (FACE) consortium, the “heavily software-dependent” Apache V6 features open-system architecture and the new Multicore Mission Processor (MMP). By incorporating a Modular Open Systems Approach (MOSA) in the current Defense Standardization Program, all significant DoD acquisitions will employ modular software design that allows systems to easily and cost-effectively be added, removed, and upgraded throughout a platform’s life cycle.
Mounted above the rotor assembly, the Apache V6 is also outfitted with L3Harris’ latest Manned/Unmanned Teaming-eXpanded Capabilities (MUMT-X) system. The MUMT-X is the newest upgrade to the previous MUMT-2 system, allowing Apache aircrews to control MQ-1c and RQ-7B unmanned aerial vehicles directly. With the MUMT-X, aircrews will have increased communications ranges with UAVs, up to 30-100 km, increasing the Apache V6’s ability to coordinate with U.S. Marine Corps and Naval assets.
The Link 16 networking system, first installed in the AH-64E V4, will be fully integrated with the Apache V6. The Link 16 is a tactical data link network used by NATO and allied nations that allow air, naval, and ground forces to exchange information in near-real-time.
Further improving the AH-64’s network capabilities, the Apache V6 adds the ability to send and receive data over the Soldier Radio Waveform (SRW) Joint Tactical Radio System. With SRW, aircrews will have the ability to directly communicate with infantry troops on the ground directly on their rifleman radios.
By integrating Link 16, MUMT-X, and SRW, the Apache V6 can act as a secure communications hub for ground, naval, and additional air elements. These networking upgrades expand the Apache V6’s ability to act as a combat controller, improving situational awareness and coordination amongst multiple joint-force elements.
To meet the increasing threat posed by unmanned aerial systems, the Apache V6 allows air-to-air AIM-92 Stinger missiles to be mounted on standard hardpoints on the AH-64. Future plans include incorporating high-energy Directional Infrared Countermeasures (DIRCM) modules on the Apache V6 wingtips.
In 2017, the U.S. Army and Raytheon conducted the first-ever successful test of a helicopter-based high-energy laser system with the AH-64. According to Raytheon’s statement, a high-energy laser pod mounted to a hardpoint on the Apache’s stub-wings successfully tracked and shot down an unmanned target during a demonstration at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. Since announcing the successful test, the Army has been silent. It’s currently unknown if there are plans to incorporate a laser-energy system on Apache V6.
In December 2020, the Army announced plans to acquire the Israeli made, long-range, Spike “non-line-of-sight” (NLOS) missiles for the Apache V6. With a claimed maximum range of 25 kilometers (16 miles), the Spike NLOS would give the Apache V6 nearly 11 miles of extended strike range over the currently used AGM-114L “Longbow Hellfire” missiles.
One of the more intriguing new features, the Apache V6, will be the first to host the Cognitive Decision Aiding System (CDAS). Outside of the Army saying it will reduce the workload on AH-64 aircrews, very little is known about the CDAS.
Analysis of upgrades to the Apache V6 and Army Aviation Development Directorate research leads The Debrief to suggest CDAS is an advanced sensor management aide that helps offload workloads for lower-level tasks to automated systems, freeing aircrew’s mental resources to focus on higher-level information processing and decision making.
The CDAS advertised on the Apache V6 is likely a variant of the Army’s Synergistic Unmanned/Manned Intelligent Teaming or SUMIT, and Supervisory Controller for Optimal Role Allocation for Cueing of Human Operators referred to as SCORCH, program.
Initiated in 2017, the SCORCH and SUMIT programs developed and honed a single operator’s ability to simultaneously control multiple unmanned aerial systems. Robust automatic target recognition and intelligent search algorithms assist an operator’s visual search behavior and ability to use multiple systems concurrently. Eye-tracker systems continuously monitor a pilot’s visual focus, allowing the system to make real-time recommendations to improve visual searchers’ efficiency.
Integration of CDAS with the new MUMT-X system would give Apache V6 aircrews the ability to control multiple UAS platforms making the AH-64 not just an anti-armor close-air-support asset but a tremendous combat multiplier.
The Apache V6 Enters Service
Making a three-day trek from manufacturing facilities in Mesa, Arizona, the Army says the first six Apache V6s have been delivered to the 1-229th Attack Reconnaissance Battalion at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington.
First developed to seek and destroy Soviet tanks, the AH-64E Apache V6 has evolved into a combat controller, capable of bridging multiple ground, air, and sea-based systems. With the increased range for fire control and weapon systems, the Apache V6 looks to position itself as a legitimate standoff threat.
For Pentagon strategists concerned with China’s expansionism in the South China Sea, the V6’s enhanced maritime capabilities will be a welcomed addition to the AH-64’s repertoire. The expanded naval ability will also be warmly received by allied export customers, such as South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.
“The GEN3 DSA and several of the software changes overall make the system more intuitive, saving time and effort, which allows me and my peers to spend more energy and time focused outside and on the bigger picture of where the aircraft is in time and space,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Logan Featherston, a pilot with C Company, 1-229th ARB.
Presently the Army is in the process of upgrading its entire fleet of AH-64D models to the current “E” model. The Army plans to procure 791 Ah-64Es, with all orders now being filled by the Apache V6.
Under current Future Vertical Lift plans, the Army intends to field the eventual replacement to the AH-64E by 2030. However, in a recent interview, Adam Hodges, Capture Team Lead for Vertical Lift International Sales at Boeing Defense, said he expects the new Apache V6 will continue to play a crucial role at least to the end of the 2050s.
“The U.S. Army plans to use Apache helicopters until the middle of the 21st century and even longer,” said Hodges. “Further existing and emerging solutions will be incorporated into this aforementioned modular architecture. Today, much of the new technology that is rapidly growing and evolving is software. The Version 6 of the AH-64E provides the capability to rapidly introduce and leverage new solutions. Apache will be the principal Attack Helicopter for the U.S. Army and International Apache operators for decades to come.”