The AH-64A proved its capabilities in action during both Operation Restore Hope and Operation Desert Storm. Approximately 160 Army helicopters took part in Operation Just Cause, the American invasion of Panama beginning in December 1989. AH-64 Apaches self-deployed from the United States and engaged in combat for the first time. The AH-64 Attack Helicopter provided effective fire support, engaging several targets that were danger close to friendly units. Although the Apache exhibited some mechanical problems during Just Cause, it performed well as an advanced attack aircraft. The AH-64's advanced sensors and sighting systems were effective against Panamanian government forces. However, the Forward Looking Infrared-Night Vision System (FLIR-NVS) only picks up thermal images and cannot distinguish visual or low-light markings such as GLINT tape. Units had to establish and practice procedures for using the AH-64 in support, especially at night. Lieutenant General Carl Stiner, commander of the XVIII Airborne Corps, was quoted as observing that it could fire a HELLFIRE missile "through a window at five miles away at night." Apache helicopters played a key role in this action, where much of the activity was at night. Operation Just Cause enabled Army aviators to demonstrate in combat that, through the use of the night vision devices with which they had trained, they could "own the night."
Apache helicopters also played a major role in the liberation of Kuwait. On 20 November 1990, the 11th Aviation Brigade was alerted for deployment to Southwest Asia from Storck Barracks in Illesheim Germany. The first elements arrived in theater 24 November 1990. By 15 January 1991 the unit had moved 147 helicopters, 325 vehicles and 1,476 soldiers to the region. The Apache helicopters of the Brigade destroyed more than 245 enemy vehicles with no losses.
On 17 January 1991, four MH-53J Pave Low III helicopters from the 20th Special Operations Squadron led two flights of Apaches to make the first strike of the war. Pilots of the two flights, eight AH-64A Apache attack helicopters of 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) fired the first shots of Operation Desert Storm. Codenamed "Normandy", in remembrance of the 101st "Screaming Eagles" airborne operation during World War II, the dangerous mission consisted of simultaneous attacks designed to knock-out two key early-warning radar installations in western Iraq at precisely 0238 hours, 17 January 1991. Both radar sites, each hit by a team of four Apaches, were destroyed within a time span of 4.5 minutes. Each pilot's primary target became the secondary target for adjacent Apache team members.
The first combat mission of the Gulf War was launched at 1300 hours 17 January 1991 from a staging airfield in western Saudi Arabia, with the two teams of Apaches flying about 90 minutes to the two radar sites about 35 miles apart. The Apache crews observed a radio blackout until 10 seconds before unleashing up to 27 HELLIFRE missiles that destroyed 16 to 18 targets at each site. The near perfect mission opened a 20 mile wide corridor all the way into Baghdad, Iraq. Moments later, some 100 U.S. Air Force jets streaked across the border for an undetected bombing run on Baghdad that marked the start of Operation Desert Storm's punishing air war. By the end of the day 900 coalition aircraft passed through the corridor.
Most of the Apache's earlier mechanical problems had been corrected, and whatever doubts remained regarding its durability and combat effectiveness were quickly dispelled. During Operation Desert Storm, AH-64s were credited with destroying more than 500 tanks plus hundreds of additional armored personnel carriers, trucks and other vehicles. They also were used to destroy vital early warning radar sites, an action that opened the UN coalition's battle plan. Apaches also demonstrated the ability to perform when called upon, logging thousands of combat hours at readiness rates in excess of 85 percent during the Gulf War.
While recovery was ongoing, additional elements of the 11th Aviation Brigade began the next chapter of involvement in the region. On 24 April 1991 the 6th Squadron, 6th Cavalry's 18 AH-64 helicopters began a self-deployment to Southwest Asia. The Squadron provided aerial security to a 3,000 square kilometer region in Northern Iraq as part of the Combined Task Force of Operation Provide Comfort.
The AH-64A Apache helped to keep the peace in Bosnia. April of 1996 saw the beginning of the 11th Regiment's involvement in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Elements of 6/6 Cavalry served as a part of Task Force Eagle under 1st Armored Division for 7 months. In October of 1996, Task Force 11, consisting of the Regimental Headquarters, 2/6 Cavalry, 2/1 Aviation and 7/159 Aviation (AVIM) deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina in support of Operation Joint Endeavor/Operation Joint Guard for 8 months. In June of 1998 the Regimental Headquarters, 6/6 Cavalry and elements of 5/158 Aviation were again deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina in support of Operations Joint Guard and Joint Forge for 5 months. The AH-64As advanced sensors and sighting systems proved effective in removing the cover of darkness from anti-government forces.
In March 1999 Task Force Hawk was originally directed to deploy to Macedonia and to use the existing facilities and local experience provided by US Army units based at Camp Able Sentry. The expectation that this infrastructure would be available drove the early deployment planning. Unfortunately, based on availability of space, the Macedonian government determined they could not allow helicopters to be based there and the deployment had to be shifted to Albania, where the government had agreed to accept them. The change in deployment site to Albania necessitated the deployment of additional force protection assets and infrastructure support. Consequently, the material required to deploy this force grew by a factor of three.
On 4 April 1999 the United States offered and NATO accepted 24 Army AH-64A Apache attack helicopters to aid in Operation Allied Force. The Apaches, from two battalions of the 11th Aviation Brigade in Illesheim, Germany, were expected to arrive in eight to 14 days. The Apache force in Albania had about 465 soldiers. The Apaches were accompanied by support helicopters, a Multiple Launch Rocket System artillery battalion, a support battalion, a mechanized infantry company with 14 Bradley fighting vehicles, a military police company, a signal company, and required military intelligence, aviation maintenance and other support elements. About 2,000 US soldiers were part of the initial deployment to Albania.
At the time, Tirana airport was a "bare bones" facility and the Apaches had to share space with massive amounts of humanitarian aid pouring into Albania. Task Force Hawk was in competition with the humanitarian Joint Task Force Shining Hope for scarce airbase resources in Tirana, Albania. The airport remained a bottleneck despite heroic efforts by Air Force RED HORSE Engineers to expand its capacity.
On 20 April 1999 Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen directed the deployment of additional units to provide force protection for Task Force Hawk in Albania. Some 615 soldiers from the headquarters and headquarters company and two light infantry companies of the 2nd Battalion, 505th Infantry Regiment, 11 additional AH-64 Apache attack helicopter crews from 229th Aviation Regiment, and logistics support personnel from the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, began deploying to Tirana. This deployment brought the approximate number of US forces in Task Force Hawk to 3,300. Ultimately a total of roughly 5,000 personnel deployed.
It took almost four weeks to deploy the Apache helicopters. The Apache crews started training for deep strike missions against Serb forces in Kosovo. Given the changes in the scope and specifics of Task Force Hawk's deployment, a different means of moving the task force might have been chosen. It has been a misimpression that the Task Force Hawk deployment merely involved 24 Apache helicopters. In fact, Task Force Hawk was an Army Aviation Brigade Combat Team. This unit included a corps aviation brigade headquarters, a corps artillery brigade headquarters with a Multiple-Launch Rocket System (MLRS) battalion, an attack helicopter regiment (Apache), a ground maneuver brigade combat team, a corps support group, a signal battalion, a headquarters troop battalion, a military police detachment, a psychological operations detachment, and a special operations command-and-control element.
Two 11th Aviation Regiment soldiers killed 4 May 1999 in the crash of their Apache helicopter in Albania were the first US troops to die in the NATO air offensive against Yugoslavia. The crash occurred about 75 kilometers northeast of the Tirana-Rinas Airport during a training mission in support of Operation Allied Force.
Aviator inexperience reportedly resulted in 65 percent of the combat crew force having less than 500 hours of Apache seat time when they went to Albania. Of those aviators, reportedly none were qualified for night vision goggle [NVG] use from the co-pilot gunner's position in the front seat of the Apache. Albania, which at the time was rugged terrain with poorly marked power lines and other dangerous features was not a good place to rely solely on FLIR. Thus one reason for the delays in declaring the Apaches combat ready was the need for a complete NVG training program established during the early stages of deployment. The then current Aircraft Survivability Equipment (ASE) was not reliable and, in some cases not effective. Many Apache pilots had lost confidence in the AN/APR-39 radar warning system, the AN/APR-136 jammer, and were not sure of the AN/ALQ-144 IR jammer's true capabilities. In many training missions, the AN/APR-39 displayed 'ghost' acquisitions and trackings.
The attack helicopters and other land component assets were integrated with tactical aircraft assets through the air tasking order. Coordinating rotary-wing aircraft operations into the Air Tasking Order proved problematic because this was not a traditional mission defined in Army doctrine nor was it exercised on a regular basis in joint training. As a result, the Services had to work through numerous complexities associated with the evolution of new missions and employment concepts in the middle of a major conflict. Integrating Army helicopters, radars, artillery, and other assets through the Air Tasking Order required significant refinement. In short, the tactics, techniques, or procedures required for the mission had not yet been developed when Operation Allied Force took place.
The Apache's radios did not have the range for supporting long range, deep penetration attacks. The Army resorted to using a SATCOM link added to a UH-60 to relay communications and a relay system aboard a (fixed wing) C-12 aircraft. In addition to monitoring these and other sources, the pilots had to stay in touch with Air Force AWACS aircraft, a situation which led to high cockpit workload.
While the Apaches engaged in rigorous mission rehearsals in preparation for combat, the conflict terminated without their being committed to combat operations. As Operation Allied Force progressed and the effectiveness of the ongoing campaign became evident, it was decided not to add Task Force Hawk's firepower to the ongoing air operation. NATO did not use the Apaches because the situation had changed from the time they were requested to when they were combat ready. By the time the helicopters were ready, Milosevic had changed his tactics. Instead of massing his forces, they had become dispersed. Many of his tanks that would have been killed by the Apaches were then placed in individual homes and villages. So the effectiveness of the Apache at that point would have been called into question compared to the level of risk involved. Task Force Hawk's Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS), deployed with Task Force Hawk to engage deep targets and suppress enemy air defenses, were never used due to collateral damage concerns.
On 1 March 2002 five Apaches were present at the start of Operation Anaconda, another arrived later in the morning and a seventh flew up from Kandahar to join the fight the first afternoon. The Apache helicopters provided the most responsive close air support for forces taking heavy fire from the Al-Qaeda hideouts in the initial days of the battle. The Apaches received liberal amounts of enemy fire. While none of the helicopters was shot down, four were so badly damaged they had to be written off. Five out of the six were non-mission-capable by the end of the first day. A requirement materialized for fast turnaround to get them back in the sky. The aviation task force included the Apaches of A Company, 3rd Battalion, 101st Aviation. The sweep by more than two thousand US, Afghan and other coalition forces through the valleys and over the mountains south of Gardez denied surviving Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces use of that remote area with its many caves as a base of operations.
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