Believe it or not, the Army didn’t spend millions upon millions of dollars developing the Apache just so you could watch clips of it smokin’ jihadis on YouTube. Mainly because YouTube didn’t exist when they came up with it.
After the end of the Vietnam war, the Army found itself with old, obselescent and poorly maintained forces facing a massive Soviet Army in Western Europe. The need to recapitalize and re-equip the forces was great, but the defense budget was tight. Military spending was unpopular and the mood in the country was fairly isolationist. The Army was one of the least trusted institutions in the country. The leadership was faced with a problem familiar to managers and leaders everywhere- a huge task and very little in the way of resources.
The development of the Apache took place in this arena of limited budgets, and was a product not only of the state of the art in aerospace engineering, but also of changing ideas of how best to fight a war. As the development began, The 1973 Yom Kipur war showed just how violent and intense an armored battle could be. It also showed just how effective Soviet weapons could be. We tend to treat them with scorn now, but they were very effective in the Sinai, and fit in very well with the Soviet view of how to fight. Partly as a result of the 73 war, and a very comprehensive study of history, the Army developed the doctrine of Active Defense, which would later evolve into the AirLand Battle Doctrine. AirLand Battle was the governing view of “how to fight” from roughly 1982 to the end of the Cold War. It’s effectiveness can be seen in Desert Storm. The equipment that the Army bought in the 1970s and 1980s was designed with this doctrine in mind as well as the constraints of budget and engineering.
Doctrine drove the development of equipment. The Army looked at how it wanted to fight, then decided what it needed to fight that way. Knowing that there was a very limited pool of money, the were ruthless in aiming for what the NEEDED versus what they WANTED. This eventually boiled down to what became known as “The Big Five”: The M-1 Abrams tank, the M-2/M-3 Bradley Fighting Vehicle, The UH-60 Blackhawk transport helicopter, the Patriot air defense missile system, and of course, the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter.
The big problem facing US commanders on the ground in Western Europe was being outnumbered. A US division could expect to face up to nine Soviet divisions. The rule of thumb is that the attacker should bring three times the troops as the defender. The problem for the Soviets was that there wasn’t enough space to get all nine divisions into the fight at the same time. There just weren’t enough roads to move the divisions and supply them. Their answer was the “echelon attack”. The first echelon of three divisions would attack. If they broke through, fine. If not, they would pull back slightly while keeping pressure on the US forces. The second echelon would then pass through and make its attack. If that didn’t work, the third echelon would then take its turn. During each attack, they could expect to wear down the US division to the point that it collapsed. The question for the US was how to counter this. The answer was-timing. If the US could delay the follow up attacks by the second and third echelons, the US division would be in a position recover from the first attack, and even counter-attack to upset the Soviet efforts. The question became “how do we delay and disrupt the follow on echelons?” Artillery and rockets didn’t have enough range to reach that far behind the front. The Air Force would do its part by concentrating on targets like bridges, supply and fuel depots, and command posts. That left a middle ground from roughly 25-100 miles behind the front lines that the Army needed to be able to attack.
The solution was the attack helicopter and deep strike. Attack helicopters had been around almost as long as helicopters themselves. Previously, however, they had always been used in close support of the ground forces, like flying artillery, and tied to the units they were supporting. Anyone who has seen Apocolypse Now remembers the choppers coming in over the beach and laying waste to the bad guys. The new concept was for the helicopter to act more like Cavalry, raiding deep behind enemy lines, popping up where least expected. Think JEB Stuart in the Civil War. Rather than one or two helicopters providing support to an infantry battalion, an entire battalion of helicopters (18 birds) would slip past the first echelon and attack the second and third before they could even get to the fight. They would sow confusion, concentrate on taking out commanders and headquarters, force the Soviets to react to us, rather than having us react to them. By carefully choosing when and where they attacked, they could influence not only when, but where the follow on echelons attacked. For instance, if the Soviets planned to attack by crossing a river, the helicopters could concentrate on attacking bridging vehicles, forcing the Soviets to choose another path.
The Army’s first attempt at a purpose built attack helicopter was the AH-56 Cheyenne. It was not a success. It was primarily designed to serve as an escort for transport helicopters, but the ability to fly fast for long distances also helped inspire the deep strike concept. After the failure of the Cheyenne, development of the Apache began in earnest. What was wanted was a long range helicopter that could survive considerable small arms fire, and packed a large punch, able to defeat any known enemy armor. The helicopter needed to be able to operate day or night, or in bad weather. This lead to the development of the Apache’s TADS/PNVS (Target Aquisition and Designation System/Pilots Night Vision System). This used infrared sensors to allow the gunner to spot enemy vehicles and “paint” them with a laser designator. The pilots night vision system used was mounted above the TADS and moved separatley. This allowed both crewmembers to use night vision, even while looking in differnt directions. One of the “good ideas” incorporated was to allow the 30mm cannon to point where the pilot was looking. While the gunner was using the TADS to fire Hellfire missiles at enemy tanks, the pilot could engage any threats that got in close.
The Hellfire missile was developed in concert with the Apache. It has a range of about 5 miles so the Apache is outside the range of most anti-aircraft missiles and guns it would encounter. It’s warhead was large enough to defeat any known armor and since it was laser designated, it could be guided by the helicopter firing it, another helicopter, or a scout on the ground. The 30mm chain gun gave the Apache to engage soft targets like trucks without spending an expensive Hellfire missile. It also gave it good self-defense against troops and anti-aircraft guns. In addition, 2.75″ rockets could be used to attack soft targets and troops.
The best known use of the Apache performing a deep strike was on the opening night of Desert Storm. A force of eight Apaches, supported by four Air Force MH-53Js, attacked two Iraqi radar stations on the border to open up a corridor for Allied strike planes to slip through unobserved. Less well known were several deep strike missions performed by the Apaches of the VII Corps to attack Republican Guard brigades and “fix” them in place to be destroyed later by ground forces. They were so successful, by the time they were done, there was little left of the units to be destroyed.
Ironically, the Army has abondoned the deep strike mission for the Apaches. This is partly because there is little chance of US forces being so greatly outnumbered. Another major factor was the deep strike mission against the Medina Division on March 24, 2003. Thirty-three Apaches attacked the Medina Division near Karbala. Having learned their lesson in Operation Desert Storm, the Medina Division laid a clever “flak trap” that shot down one Apache, and damaged almost all the others. All the damaged Apaches were able to make it back home, but several were damaged beyond repair. The high cost of the mission wasn’t worth the results.
If you made it this far, many thanks. Here’s the payoff-
A personal favorite:
And one more: