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AH-64D Operations

During Army operational testing in 1995, all six Longbow Apache prototypes competed against standard AH-64A Apaches. The threat array developed to test the combat capabilities of the two Apache designs was a postulated 2004 lethal and digitized force consisting of heavy armor, air defense and countermeasures. The tests clearly demonstrated that Longbow Apaches:

  • Were 400 percent more lethal (hitting more targets) than the AH-64A, then described as the most capable and advanced armed helicopter in the world to enter service.
  • Were 720 percent more survivable than the AH-64A.
  • Met or exceeded Army requirements for both target engagement range and for probability of acquiring a selected target. The specific requirements and results are classified.
  • Easily hit moving and stationary tanks on an obscured, dirty battlefield from a range of more than 7 kilometers, when optical systems were rendered ineffective.
  • Could use either its Target Acquisition Designation Sight (TADS) or FCR as a targeting sight, offering increased battlefield flexibility.
  • Had the ability to initiate the radar scan, detect and classify more than 128 targets, prioritize the 16 most dangerous targets, transmit the information to other aircraft, and initiate a precision attack -- all in 30 seconds or less.
  • Required one third less maintenance man hours (3.4) per flight hour than the requirement.
  • Are able to fly 91 percent of the time -- 11 percent more than the requirement.

One issue uncovered during the Initial Operational Test that required follow-on testing involved the method of employment of the Longbow Hellfire missile. During the force-on-force phase, Longbow flight crews frequently elected to override the system's automatic mode selection logic and fire missiles from a masked position. This powerful technique was seen as having the potential to significantly increase the helicopter's survivability, but had not been validated with live missile firings during developmental or operational testing. DOT&E worked with the Army to develop a test plan that would confirm system performance using this firing technique. The test program would include computer simulation of the missile's target acquisition and fly-out as well as live missile firings at moving armored vehicles.

Opportunities to analyze and evaluate the effectiveness, suitability, and survivability of the AH-64A/D aircraft under combat conditions abounded during operations in FY02 against al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and in FY03 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Results of subsequent combat deployments and training exercises confirmed the results of the 1995 IOT&E assessment for the Longbow Apache helicopter. The AH-64D helicopter provides effective air-to-ground combat power. The Army afteraction reports from the Iraq conflict conclude that the Longbow Apache aircraft survives, protects the crew, and can be quickly repaired and returned to combat. Still, it was noted that improvements to the Apache aircraft and training devices could enhance the aircraft's effectiveness. The Army was expected to consider accelerating the procurement and fielding of M-TADS to enable target identification at standoff ranges. Additionally, the Army was to incorporate "running/diving fire" engagement tactics, techniques, and procedures, as well as dynamic engagements during peacetime training. This training would be especially beneficial in the Longbow qualification training at Fort Rucker, Alabama, and during unit aerial gunnery training.

23 March 2003 has been described as the darkest day for the US Army during Operation Iraqi Freedom. On the night of 23–24 March, the 11th AHR launched a two-battalion attack against Republican Guard Medina Division armored units located a few miles northeast of Karbala, within 50 miles of Baghdad. The enemy used cell phones and flashing lights to signal the advance of the helicopters and alerted the considerable enemy air defenses located in the villages and towns in the region. The 33 Apache rotorcraft flew ahead of the Army’s Third Infantry Division to attack the Iraqi Republican Guard regiment in the suburbs of Karbala. Alerted by cell phone, Iraqi units concentrated fire from their massed guns against the Apaches, and inflicted considerable damage on Apaches as they hovered to direct precision missiles against Iraqi targets. Every aircraft in the attack was damaged amid intense counterfire. Small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades (RPG) hit 30 of these rotorcraft.

An AH-64 assigned to the 1st Battalion of the 227th Aviation Regiment (1/227) from Fort Hood, Texas, call sign Vampire 12, went down in the multibattalion raid and the two-man crew was captured. Task Force Gabriel, the personnel recovery task force including MEDEVAC helicopters, was with the 11thAHR but did not respond to the downed aircraft because the recovery aircraft had not been refueled at an intermediate Forward Operating Base (FOB) set up for the operation.

The 11th AHR was task organized with three attack helicopter battalions: 1-227thAVN from the 1st Cavalry Division, placed under the Operational Control (OPCON) ofthe 11th AHR, 6-6 Cavalry and 2-6 Cavalry (V Corps 2003, 1). Both 1-227th AVN and 126-6 Cavalry were AH-64D equipped and 2-6 Cavalry was AH-64A equipped. The 11th AHR removed 2-6 Cavalry from the 23 March missionjust hours prior to launch.

Commanded and controlled by the 11th Aviation Regiment, the attack was conducted as a classic “deep-strike” mission, something that Army aviation had been developing for years. Gen Wesley Clark, USA, retired, described it on Cable News Network as “the first Army doctrinal deep attack mission. We’ve trained for this mission for about 18 years. It was designed to go against the Soviets. We applied it against the 2nd Brigade of the Medina Division. We had good results on this mission. We took out a bunch of T-72s, artillery and infantry. On the other hand, it was a firefight, and we took return fire.” Others had a different take. Reviewing the debacle, the V Corps commander, Lt. Gen.William Wallace said, “Deep operations with the Apaches, unless there’s a very, very, very clear need to do it, are probably not a good idea.”

The geography of Iraq generally is defined as featureless desert terrain. However, this is not universally true. OIF started out in Southwestern Iraq. There, the terrain varies from flat desert with little elevation variation, to areas with 50' variations (wadi systems). The terrain around the lakes near Karbala is hilly (including some small cliffs) near the lakes and flattened out farther away from the lakes. Approaching Baghdad from the Southwest towards the two river systems, vegetation increases proportionately, but the terrain remains fairly flat. Instead of attacking from the west over a large lake, the helicopters flew directly over well-lit urban areas, impacting the night vision of the crews and alerting the Iraqis.

Additionally, the raid suffered from poor planning, as supporting and suppressive fires lacked proper coordination. The action was not synchronized with parallel operations by Air Force, Navy, and Marine fighter attacks. Concentrated and massive enemy small-arms fire downed the Apache. Other Army helicopters tried to recover the Vampire 12 crew, but fire from enemy forces kept them away. Another Apache, Palerider 16, also sustained heavy damage, but flew out of the area with a wounded crew member blocking the emergency frequency with continuous calls for help.

Army planners had not dedicated enough support to eliminate or suppress the guns so that the Apaches could operate safely. The expensive lesson led the aviation-unit commander to adjust tactics. Subsequent raids followed Air Force and Navy attack aircraft, which supressed the guns to achieve a level of air superiority sufficient for helicopters to operate. Lt Gen William Wallace, V Corps commander, noted “We learned from our mistakes, we adjusted and adapted based on what we learned, and we still used the Apache helicopter in a significant role during the course of the fight.”

For the next two days, the battle area was encased in the “Mother of all Sand (MOASS, as the troops quickly dubbed it), with winds routinely as high as 50 knots. Aviation units were grounded, and even ground vehicles had a hard time traveling. The storm was interspersed with rain showers, which made it worse. The aircraft returning from the Karbala raid were operational again within 96 hours, even though all sported at least half a dozen bullets holes. Following a detailed review of the attack of the 11th AHR, on 28 March 2003 the Aviation Brigade of the 101st Division mounted a second and more successful raid against enemy formations just north of Karbala, destroying 47 enemy vehicles and crewed weapons and suffering only one damaged AH-64.

In early April Task Forces Tarawa and Tripoli from the I MEF continued north and attacked enemy units in Baqubah, Samarra, and Tikrit, freeing seven American soldiers: five who had been taken prisoner in an ambush in An Nasiriyah, and two who were aboard the AH-64 shot down in the 11th AHR raid near Karbala. Susequently, when a MEDEVAC aircraft was dispatched into an area with a significant enemy threat, an AH-64 would be concurrently dispatched without any launch delay to provide en route and on-site security.

Two remaining major operations involved the 11th AHR, back to its original task organization of three attack helicopter battalions, consisted of force oriented zone reconnaissance to secure the western and eastern flanks of V Corps. These missions resulted in the destruction of numerous enemy armored vehicles, artillery and air defense systems, and several ammunition caches.

The 3rd ID utilized their Apaches extensively in the close combat attack role and did not employ them in the deep attack role. Their attack helicopter battalion, 1-3rd Aviation moved with the lead ground elements, destroying enemy targets ahead of ground maneuver forces. The 3ID was the first to employ the relatively newly fielded AH-64D Longbow in combat, as it destroyed the Iraqi observation posts along the Iraq-Kuwait border prior to ground forces crossing into Iraq.

The 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) was equipped with three attackhelicopter battalions consisting of 24 Apaches per battalion. All of the Apaches are assigned to the 101st Aviation Brigade. The 101st Aviation Brigade is credited with destroying over 1,549 military targets, including air defense systems, armor and mechanizedvehicles, artillery and para-military vehicles used by the Saddam Fedayeen. While 22 aircraft received some damage from enemy fire, not a single aircraft was destroyed as a result of enemy fire, and all returned to their assembly areas.

As a result of the failed deep attack by the 11th AHR in the late night hours of 23 March 2003, considerable doubt arose about the relevance of Army attack aviation as a whole. Critics of attack aviation base their concerns on a perception of poor performance by attack aviation during operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the April 23, 2003 issue of Slate, contributing author Fred Kaplan wrote an article entitled “Chop the Chopper.” Along with other critics of Army attack aviation, he cited Operation Anaconda and the failed mission of 23 March 2003. Kaplan noted that during Operation Anaconda the Apache helicopters engaged Taliban fighters and, as a result of damage received by small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), five out of seven were “non-mission capable.” Kaplan argued that the Apache is "too dangerous to the pilots who fly it and not dangerous enoughto the enemy it’s designed to attack."

Loren Thompson, director of The Lexington Institute, a Washington consulting defense firm, said the Apache “is the most advanced attack helicopter ever built, so if it can’t operate safely in a place like Iraq, that has to raise questions about the whole concept of attack helicopters.” The 04 June 2003 Report for Congress, Iraq War: Defense Program Implications for Congress states “The war in Iraq is the third consecutive major U.S. military operation, following the operation in Kosovo in 1999 and the war in Afghanistan in 2001-2002, where helicopter performance was mixed.”

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Page last modified: 04-07-2012 15:39:29 ZULU