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Aerial Assassin: Why No Helicopter Can Compare with the Ah-64 Apache



The Apache continues to evolve in the twenty-first century.

Early in the morning of January 17, 1991, eight sleek helicopters bristling with missiles swooped low over the sands of the An Nafud desert in as they soared towards the border separating Saudi Arabia from Iraq.

At 2:30 a.m., the choppers fanned out and set to work in teams of two. Rocket motors flashed as Hellfire missiles streaked towards two Iraqi radars powerful enough to potentially pick up the faint signature of a stealth plane.

Minutes after the radars had been reduced to rubble, Nighthawk stealth jets soared through the twenty-mile-wide radar gap, headed for Baghdad. But the Army’s Apache attack helicopter aviators they had struck first to “kick down the door” for the Nighthawks.

Nearly three decades later, the Apache’s status as the world’s premier attack helicopter remains largely unchallenged, and the type continues to see extensive action in the Middle East and in demand in countries as diverse as the UK, Egypt, India and Taiwan. The $35 million armored attack helicopter, which can pack as many as sixteen tank-busting missiles under its stub wings, remains supreme.

The Apache’s origins date back to the United States withdrawal from the Vietnam War, as the Army turned its attention back to the huge mechanized armies of the Warsaw Pact. Helicopter gunships had proven highly useful in Vietnam for delivering precise strikes and loitering air support—but relatively lightly-armed Viet Cong had shot down hundreds of them. The Red Army mustered heavier anti-aircraft defenses and huge tank armies that would not be phased by miniguns and anti-personnel rockets.

Seeking a helicopter fit to tackle Soviet tank division, the Army ultimately had to choose between the Bell YAH-63, which resembled a stretched-out Cobra, and the McDonnell-Douglas YAH-64. Disliking the former’s tricycle landing gear and two-shaft rotor, the Army selected the YAH-64 in 1976. Per custom (and even regulation), permission was obtained from Apache elders to name the helicopter after the Native American tribe.

The AH-64’s tandem seats situate the pilot higher to the rear while a weapons officer and co-pilot sat closer to the nose. Though both can fly the chopper, the pilot uses a PNVS wide-angle infrared night-vision system for navigation, while the gunner employs a rotating TADS targeting system, combining zoomable infrared cameras with a laser-target mounted in a turret on the Apache’s nose.

The crew are protected by 2,500 pounds of light boron plating and Kevlar-lined seats, protecting them from ubiquitous 12.7-millimeter machineguns and twenty-three-milimeter flak cannons, while the fuel tanks have self-sealing protection system. Both laser and radar-warning receivers alert the crew to imminent missile attacks, and a rotor-mounted ALQ-144A “disco ball” infrared jammer can help mis-direct heat-seeking missiles.

Two 1,700-horsepower T700-GE-701 turboshafts, slung on each side of the fuselage in heat-signature-reducing pods, turn the four-bladed main and tail rotors made of steel and composite materials, allowing speeds of 182 miles per hour, a service ceiling of 21,000 feet, and an endurance of 150 minutes. Despite weighing nearly nine tons loaded, the Apache proved exceptionally agile, capable of pulling off barrel rolls and loops.

The Apache’s stub wings each mount two pylons typically carrying a mix of pods carrying nineteen 2.75-inch rockets for use against personnel and light vehicles, and quad-racks of AGM-114 Hellfire anti-tank missiles.

In Vietnam, AH-1 Cobra gunships had successfully picked off North Vietnamese tanks with wire-guided TOW missiles. But these required the helicopter to hover exposed for a half-minute or longer as the gunner piloted the missile to the target—a potentially suicidal tactic in a high-intensity conflict. The one-hundred-pound Hellfire was laser-guided, and traveled at supersonic speeds, meaning the operator only had to paint its target with a laser for ten seconds or less. This allowed Apaches to hover low behind terrain, perform a popup-Hellfire attack, and then duck back behind cover.

For precisely strafing personnel targets lightly armored vehicles, the Apache mounts a hydraulically-operated M230 “Chain Gun” under its chin which can rattle out five to ten 30-millimeter high-explosive dual-purpose shells per second, with 1,200 M789 shells carried in a looping feed mechanism.

The AH-64A entered service in 1986, with 821 eventually delivered through 1996. These initially imposed heavy new maintenance demands on Army mechanics.

First seeing action at night during the 1989 U.S. intervention in Panama, only two years later in the Gulf War did the Apache’s capabilities truly became evident. The 278 AH-64As deployed destroyed 500 armored vehicles for the loss of just one chopper to a rocket propelled grenade.

Despite its successes, the AH-64A remained a product of analog-era technology. After canceling AH-64A+ and B upgrades, the Army finally committed to the heavily modernized AH-64D variant with color digital flight displays, modem-based datalinks, and a new GPS and doppler radar navigation systems.

The D-model’s best known innovation, however, was an optional drum-shaped APG-78 “Longbow” radome on a mast atop the Apache’s rotor, used to target the radar-guided AGM-114L missiles up to five miles away. The Longbow’s raised position allowed an Apache to track multiple air or ground targets while hovering concealed behind trees or hills. Later Apaches also received modernized Arrowhead M-TADs sights, and some could carry Stinger heat-seeking missiles on the tips of their wing stubs, for use against helicopters, drones and slow-flying aircraft.

Apache Longbows proved many times more deadly and survivable than the AH-64As in exercises, so the Army upgraded 501 the new model, and retired the remaining un-upgraded AH-64As in 2012. However, the added weight of the Longbow did diminish speed and altitude performance.

After somewhat scandalously being kept from engaging in the 1999 Kosova conflict, Apaches would soon see extensive action in the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. During the opening days of the latter, the 3rd Infantry Division massed 31 Apaches for an ambitious deep-penetrating raid targeting the Medina Armored division’s positions around Karbala.

This radical experiment in massed helicopter employment ended in near-disaster as the Apaches ran into an urban “flak trap” of Iraqi troops wielding assault rifles, heavy machineguns, surface-to-air missiles, twenty-three- and fifty-seven-millimeter flak cannons, and rocket-propelled grenades. Twenty-seven of the helicopters limped back to base riddled with heavy-caliber bullets. Another crash landed and Apache Vampire 12 crashed into a marsh, its crew captured and the wreckage prominently displayed on Iraqi television.

However, the Apache fought on for many long years of counterinsurgency warfare, sustaining several losses but infliciting considerable damage on its adversaries.

Apache exported abroad also saw considerable, high-profile action. For example, ibn 2002, the IDF controversially debuted a new tactic of using Apache-fired Hellfire missiles like high-collateral-damage sniper rifles to assassinate Hamas leaders. Israeli Apaches have also twice engaged aerial targets, shooting down a civilian Cessna and an Iranian stealth drone.

The United Kingdom, meanwhile, license-manufactured sixty-seven of its own Augusta-Westland Apaches with Rolls-Royce RTM322 turboshafts and punchier CRV7 rockets. These too have seen extensive action over Iraq and Afghanistan. Two were even once used to land a team of four commandos strapped to the stub-wings.

British Apaches were also uniquely deployed at sea from the amphibious assault ship HMS Ocean in May-September 2011 to knock out Libyan air-defenses and blast counterattacking tanks and amphibious commandoes.

The Future Apache

The Apache continues to evolve in the twenty-first century. The latest AH-64E Guardian model boasts uprated engines, remote drone-control capabilities, and a sensors designed to highlight muzzle flashes on the battlefield below. The Army has also experimentally deployed Apaches on U.S. Navy ships and had them practice anti-ship missions, and even tested a laser-armed Apache.

Following the retirement of OH-58D Kiowa scout helicopters, AH-64Es have been pressed into reconnaissance units, controversially sourced at the expense of National Guard units. However, the heavy attack helicopters have not proven a great fit for the scouting role, so a dedicated scout helicopter is being sought to replace them.

As short-range air-defense systems grow increasingly deadly, and attack helicopters more costly, the survivability of even the Apache on twenty-first century battlefields remains open to question. However, the attack helicopter’s ability to ferret out and battlefield targets and hammer them with precision missiles remains highly valued. Therefore, the Army plans to keep flying Apaches into the 2040s, by which time a new generation of “Future Vertical Lift” choppers may eventually assume their mantle.

(This article was originally published last month.)

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.

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Military rituals and military culture in China



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Military culture influences military thinking and military strategy. Today, the armed forces of the major powers have the goal of defending their national interests and contributing to world peace.

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Forget the SR-71 Spy Plane: Meet the CIA’s A-12 (Was It Even Better?)



Key point: Both spy planes played key roles in the Cold War.

Analysis of Week’s photos located the USS Pueblo near Wonsan anchored next to two patrol boats—and also revealed that Pyongyang had not mobilized its troops for war. This led Johnson to rule out plans for a preemptive or punitive strike in favor of diplomatic measures which eventually saw the ship’s abused crew released nearly a year later.

On October 30, 1967, a CIA spy-plane soared eighty-four thousand feet over Hanoi in northern Vietnam, traveling faster than a rifle bullet at over three times the speed of sound. A high-resolution camera in the angular black jet’s belly recorded over a mile of film footage of the terrain below—including the over 190 Soviet-built S-75 surface-to-air missiles sites.

The aircraft was an A-12 “Oxcart,” a smaller, faster single-seat precursor variant of the Air Force’s legendary SR-71 Blackbird spy plane.

The jet’s driver, Dennis Sullivan had earlier flown one hundred combat missions in an F-80 Starfighter over Korea for the U.S. Air Force. But Sullivan was technically no longer a military pilot—he had been “sheep-dipped,” temporarily decommissioned to fly the hi-tech jet on behalf of the CIA. He now sat in the cramped cockpit in a refrigerated space suit, as the friction generated by his plane’s Mach 3 speeds heated the cockpit to over five hundred degrees Fahrenheit.

Sullivan noted warnings light up on his instrument panel as Vietnamese Fan Song radars locked onto him. But they did not launch missiles. In twelve-and-a-half minutes he completed his run and looped around over Thailand, where he received aerial refueling. Then he embarked on a second pass.

But the North Vietnamese were waiting for him. A missile launch notification warned him that a 10.5-meter-long missile was heading towards him.

Decades later, Sullivan described in a speech seeing one of the missiles streak just past him, two-hundred meters away.

“Here comes a big’ol telephone sailing right by the cockpit—going straight up. That’s interesting . . . So I continued down the route, and didn’t see anything—until I got down the road, and then I could see behind me in the rear-view periscope at least four missile contrails, all spread out. Those four contrails went up about 90-95,000 feet and all turned over, bunched up in a line, headed for my tail end.”

The A-12 officially had a maximum speed of Mach 3.2—but the missiles that were following Sullivan could attain Mach 3.5.

“I said, ‘Holy smokes—those things fly pretty good up there for something which doesn’t have much in the way of wings.’ So I watched them come.… They’d get up right behind me, very close, and all of the sudden there’d be a big red fireball—a big white cloud of smoke—and you’d immediately pull away from it. You were going thirty miles a minute. [Note: actually, 41 miles per minute!] Every one of those SAMs guided absolutely perfectly and did the same darn thing.”

The missile’s 440-pound proximity-fused warhead was designed to swat planes out of the sky within 65 meters of the point of detonation. However, in the thinner air of the upper atmosphere, its fragments could travel up to four times as far.

Sullivan escaped and landed his A-12 in Kadena Air Base, where it spent several minutes cooling on the tarmac before mechanics could even touch its friction-heated skin. The stress of the heat and high speeds exacted a steep physical toll on the jet’s pilots, who lost an average of five pounds of body weight on the completion of their three to four- hour missions.

He was sitting for debriefing when mechanics burst in the room to show him two metal fragments from a missile’s nose cone they had found buried under his low left wing—just shy of his jet’s fuel tank.

Later when, Sullivan’s camera footage was found to have captured the ghostly white contrails of six surface-to-air missiles surging towards him from the ground.

Operation Black Shield

The CIA’s twelve ultra-fast A-12 jets were doomed to a brief operational career after the first flight in 1962. Following on the heels of several U-2 spy plane shootdowns, Washington was no longer willing to authorize overflights of Soviet territory which the A-12 had been designed to perform. Meanwhile, the Air Force ordered a larger SR-71 variant of the A-12 that was deemed superior in a “fly off” in November 1967. Unwilling to fund both highly similar aircraft, the CIA’s A-12 fleet was promptly scheduled for retirement.

However for ten months, the A-12 briefly filled a vital niche providing rapid high-value photo intelligence over Asia, where the political and military risks were deemed acceptable. Between May 31, 1967, and March 8, 1968, CIA drivers flew A-12 on twenty-nine spy missions over Cambodia, North Korea and Vietnam in an operation codenamed Black Shield. The jets flew out of Kadena Airbase in Okinawa, Japan, supported by over 250 support personnel.

Initially, President Lyndon B. Johnson was concerned by reports that North Vietnam had obtained Surface-to-Surface (SSM) missiles for attacks on South Vietnam. On May 31, 1967, CIA driver Mele Vojvodich took of in a rainstorm and recorded a mile-long reel of camera footage covering most of Northern Vietnam. The reel was then air-transported for development by Kodak in Rochester, NY. The verdict, confirmed by subsequent overflights, was that Hanoi had no SSMs after all.

A-12 intelligence often directly influenced LBJ’s decisions to commit to air raids during the Vietnam War. However, the Oxcart’s stealth features never proved adequate to avoid detection by Soviet-built radars.

On October 28, 1967, an S-75 launched a missile at an A-12 flown by Miller, but did not come particularly close. However, after Miller’s close call two days later on October 30, the Black Shield flights were temporarily suspended. A later January 4 mission on the same route over Hanoi also elicited a missile launch, to no effect.

Meanwhile, on January 23, 1968, North Korean patrol boats seized the USS Pueblo, an American spy ship operating in international waters, taking her crew into captivity. Worrying the incident, combined with a failed commando raid on the South Korean presidential palace, might herald a second Korean War, Johnson was persuaded to dispatch an A-12 flown by Jack Weeks over North Korea on January 26.

Analysis of Week’s photos located the USS Pueblo near Wonsan anchored next to two patrol boats—and also revealed that Pyongyang had not mobilized its troops for war. This led Johnson to rule out plans for a preemptive or punitive strike in favor of diplomatic measures which eventually saw the ship’s abused crew released nearly a year later.

A-12s flew two additional missions over North Korea to keep tabs on the ship, which was eventually moved to Pyongyang. Tragically, Weeks died a half-year later on June 5 when a malfunction in his A-12’s starboard turbojet engine caused its to overheat, breaking his plane apart over the South China Sea. Sixteen days later, a CIA A-12 made its last flight before the type was retired from service.

Sullivan’s close brush over Vietnam suggests its fortunate no A-12 overflights were authorized over the Soviet Union, where they would have been exposed to even greater peril, from high-speed interceptors and more advanced SAMs like the S-200 (SA-5). Today, such high-risk photo intelligence is largely acquired by satellite, or by expendable drones.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. (This first appeared in June 2019.)

Image: DVIDShub.

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SUN: China’s Military Deserves America’s Respect, But Not Its Fear



Key point: China’s military is advancing rapidly, but it is still plagued by corruption and discipline problems.

China’s new defense white paper has been eagerly awaited by Western analysts searching for clues to Beijing’s national security strategy.

The 2019 white paper (the last one was in 2015) lays out general principles of China’s defense policy. It avows the new face of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Cyberwarfare, more flexible command and control, long-range naval operations. Change the names and numbers, and you could be forgiven for thinking this was a planning document from the U.S. military or an American thinktank.

But before we fear the onslaught of the Dragon, take a look at the problems that the white paper says China’s military must solve.

The most glaring is corruption, which has led to numerous senior officers being punished for crimes such as selling promotions. “China’s armed forces are tightening political discipline and rules, investigating and dealing strictly with grave violations of CPC discipline and state laws,” the white paper says. “China’s armed forces punish corruption in strict accordance with CPC [Communist Party] discipline and relevant laws, and rectify any malpractice in key construction projects and the procurement of equipment and material…They have worked to implement full-spectrum audit, intensify the audit of major fields, projects and funds, and perform strict audits over the economic liabilities of officers in positions of leadership. Active efforts have been made to monitor the cost-effectiveness of applied funds, conduct whole-process audit, and combine civil and military efforts in auditing.”

The U.S. military has no shortage of faults. Careerism, inflated prices for military equipment, weapons that don’t work as advertised, the revolving door between the Pentagon and the defense industry. Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine the Pentagon having to cite corruption as a major impediment to military efficiency.

The U.S. military also has its share of discipline problems, such as Alcohol abuse, and sexual harassment that has derailed the careers of several senior officers. But these pale compared to the discipline problems that worry the Chinese military:

“China’s armed forces are building a military legal system with Chinese characteristics and pressing ahead with a fundamental transformation in how the military is run…They are promoting legal awareness through public communication and education campaigns, establishing and improving the support mechanism of legal consultation and service, and advancing law-based management in the military. China’s armed forces are striving to manage the troops more strictly in all respects. They have fully implemented military rules and regulations, restored and improved the traditional mechanism of using bugles to communicate and command, carried out safety inspections to identify and tackle potential problems, stepped up garrison military policing, strengthened the management of military vehicles by targeted measures, and set up a mechanism of regular notification on garrison military policing.”

There was nothing truly surprising in the white paper. It’s no secret that China has been moving away from a huge, low-tech peasant military to a smaller, more agile and high-tech force. Still, there is plenty in the paper to disturb the West as well as China’s Asian neighbors. China will continue to replace older aircraft and ships with more advanced models.  It is setting its eyes on distant horizons: the PLA will “address deficiencies in overseas operations and support, builds far seas forces, develops overseas logistical facilities, and enhances capabilities in accomplishing diversified military tasks.”

And the Chinese military still has its eyes on Taiwan. “China has the firm resolve and the ability to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and will never allow the secession of any part of its territory by anyone, any organization or any political party by any means at any time,” the white paper says. “We make no promise to renounce the use of force, and reserve the option of taking all necessary measures. This is by no means targeted at our compatriots in Taiwan, but at the interference of external forces and the very small number of “Taiwan independence” separatists and their activities. The PLA will resolutely defeat anyone attempting to separate Taiwan from China and safeguard national unity at all costs.”

Nonetheless, behind the curtain of hypersonic missiles and stealth fighters, is a military that worries about corruption and discipline. The Chinese military is to be respected, but not to be feared.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook. (his article was originally published last month and is being republished due to reader interest.

Image: Reuters.

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