TIM ROBINSON reports from the birthplace of the Boeing AH-64 Apache – Mesa, Arizona – as it evolves into a digital future with the Echo model.

Mesa, Arizona is home to these two dangerous desert predators...

Easily laying claim to be the West's most popular attack helicopter, the AH-64 originally evolved as a tank-killer to roam the Fulda Gap and European battlefields and help stem an Soviet armoured tide that was expected to roll into western Europe. Since then, it has seen combat service around the world beginning in Iraq in 1991 (where it made history on the first night of the air war by taking out a key radar station), the Balkans, to Afghanistan, Libya (flown by UK AAC from HMS Ocean) – and ongoing operations. It has also developed from the now-basic 'A' model, to the Longbow D (adding a millimetric mast radar and glass cockpit) – to the latest version, the AH-64E. Some 2,210 Apaches from the original A have been delivered – either from new-builds or re-manufactured airframes.

The E model evolution takes the Apache even further than ever before, with better flight performance and, more importantly, a whole slew of digital upgrades that are future-proofing it for incremental tweaks. The Echo now features a (long awaited) full IFR capability, as well as Link 16 for enhanced situational awareness – and the ability for the crew to remotely control two-types of US Army UAVs – a concept known as manned/unmanned teaming (MUM-T).

First entering production in 2011, some 136 of the E variant have been delivered to the US Army, with another 90 to international customers. More are on the way, with a five-year multi-year contract for 275 for the US Army and international customers via FMS expected to be awarded to Boeing in the second quarter of 2017.

With the programme of record for the E model being 690, Boeing will be building Apaches at Mesa until 2026, and potentially 2040.

On the warpath

Surprise! E model Apaches get to the fight quicker...

Speaking to aviation trade media on a pre-Farnborough press visit, Program Manager for the AH-64E in the US Army, Colonel Jeff Hager, was effusive about what the Echo model, now entering service, was bringing to the fight.

It has already proven its spurs in battle in Afghanistan and was, he said, enabling US Army Aviators to get inside enemy observe, orient, decide, and act (OODA) loops. For example, previously insurgents knew by heart the reaction time of D model Apaches and timed their attacks knowing exactly how long it would be before an Apache arrived to hunt them down. The E mode though, thanks to a new drive train, more powerful T-700-GE-701D  engines and composite rotorblades is faster and thus it has come as a big shock to the Taliban to find Apaches over their heads earlier than in the past.

With US Army Kiowa Warrior scouts now retired, the E model Apaches have also been proving the manned/unmanned teaming in combat operations. Said Col Hager: "It allows crews to sit in their aircraft on a FARP and control a Grey Eagle UAV some 50-60miles away." This means that Apache crews can survey in detail an area of operations, note activity, familiarise themselves with the situation and terrain – and even allow them to adjust fuel and armament load-out – without ever taking off.

Availability has also risen – with Col Hager saying combat mission readiness was over 90% - an impressive figure for a military aircraft, let alone possibly the world's most complex attack helicopter.

Interestingly, the US Army now seems to have rowed back on its previous new name for the AH-64E – the Apache Guardian – after the adoption was 'underwhelming' according to one insider.

Lasers, drones figure in Apache future

US Army Apache E crews can now sit on the ground and control UAVs to scout operational areas. 

While the Apache 'E' already has demonstrated its MUM-T in battle – a new update 'MUM-TX' will expand the 'E's capabilities even further. Currently the E crew can control the US Army's Shadow and Grey Eagle UAVs – but MUM-TX will expand this and allow Apaches to 'possess' any US unmanned asset on the battlefield and control it, said Colonel Hager.

Hager also revealed that the Apache AH-64E has also been selected by US Special Operations Command as the lead platform to trial a DEW (directed energy weapon) to support SF forces. Details of the power or capabilities that SOCOM require of this laser weapon are still unknown but a RfI has now gone out to industry. Adding an extremely low-collateral weapon (to say covertly disable vehicles, without killing the occupants), would add another string to the Apaches bow

The Apache E will also field the US successor to the Hellfire missile – the Lockheed Martin JAGM. Hager revealed that while there was no timescale for this, it is expected to be after FY19.

Further ahead, the Apache will also be used as a test bed to integrate some of the planned advanced technologies (such as avionics or HMI) for the US Future Vertical Lift (FVL) programme - bridging the gap between today and tomorrow's next-gen gunships.

Gunship ground zero

Boeing's Mesa factory, the home of the AH-64 Apache, has now been producing the gunship for 33 years. (Boeing Defense)

In the final assembly there are 12 positions on the assembly line. These consist of both new build E model Apaches for international customers and re-manufactured helicopters for the US Army. For the re-manufactured airframes, up to 700 components can be re-used in an E model – contributing to the types overall affordability.

At the final assembly line at Mesa, there are 12 positions where the Apache fuselages get progressively fitted out with hydraulics and the helicopters complex avionics and systems. The two-shift pulsed moving assembly line operates on a Six Sigma 'Takt Time' of four days.

One would expect that after this time, there would be little room for improvement, or new efficiencies but Boeing in Mesa is still finding new ways to optimise and lean its processes. A paperless factory, its work list whiteboard detailing tasks in each position is now digital and allows workers to drag and drop tasks into the schedule – with the time automatically updating to any changes to the production plan every 15 minutes. Kitted parts and tools, along with engineering cells co-located inside the same building, increases efficiency and allows workers to quickly consult with specialist engineers if needed.

Another perhaps underappreciated change in the E model, which brings benefits to both production and maintenance, is in the wiring harnesses – with Boeing dropping the previous spliced harness. The E has shed two miles of wiring compared to the previous D model, but more importantly this wiring now has quick-change connectors. This means that testing systems and assembly in the factory is easier and quicker. It is also a huge advantage for frontline operators in for example, repairing battle damage and keeping the Apache in the air.

Other operational efficiencies come from the workers themselves. Components for the vertical tail are now assembled complete before being fitted after a new hire from the US military put foward an idea to make his life easier. Seats, too, usually installed at the flight test phase, are now being put in earlier in the assembly process, along with tail rotors.

These ongoing efficiencies at Mesa, means that all told, Boeing expects that it can reduce its Takt time from four days to two and a half, and produce eight aircraft a month by 2018.

International customers

Qatar is the latest firm customer for the AH-64E Apache. 

Last week was also significant at Mesa as on 7 June it was announced that Boeing had been awarded a $668m contract to supply Qatar with 24 Apache Es, along with mission simulator and training support, and Thales radios. Qatar joins 15 existing Apache customers, including South Korea, Taiwan, Israel, Indonesia and the UK. Another recent customer was India – also acquiring the CH-47 Chinook and turning into a major US equipment buyer.

New opportunities for Boeing with the Apache E include an attack helicopter competition in Poland, which is seeking to replace its Mi-24 Hinds with a more advanced type to bolster its defences in the light of renewed Russian sabre-rattling in Europe. The Netherlands, too, an operator of the D, could be a potential customer for an upgrade to the E.

The company says that there is 'high interest' for the Echo from around ten nations or defence forces. Boeing's Vertical Lift arm (which also includes CH-47, V-22 and the next-gen JMR/FVL) may be a small part of the behemoth that is the larger Boeing Defense, but it is the tip of the spear in securing new defence opportunities for the company around the world. Though the military rotorcraft market is set to shrink from $18bn to $11bn, Boeing‘s goal is to increase market share from 19% to 28%, according Dave Palm, Director, Vertical Lift Global Sales & Marketing. 

By Royal Appointment

Prince Harry flew the AgustaWestland AH1 in combat in Afghanistan. (UK Government)

Set to be another new customer is the UK's Army Air Corps, currently an operator of the AgustaWestland WAH-64D Longbow – and of course, flown by Prince Harry during his time in the Army Air Corps. Though the contract for a UK AH-64E has yet to be signed, a notice of a US FMS sale was issued in August last year. With Farnborough Air Show just around the corner, could we see a signing at the show?

The upgrade from the highly-customised UK Apache variant to the International E Apache then raises the question of which equipment might be carried over. Boeing says that it is still in 'wait and see' mode and it is still too early to say – along with whether these will be remanufactured AH1 airframes (as per US Army) or brand new aircrsaft (as International customers). However, informed sources suggest that the UK radios (Army Bowman) and its Selex defensive aids subsystems would likely be integrated on the UK Apache E – but this is the minimum. With experiences of gold-plating military equipment draining budgets, the MoD now seems to be happy to to align the UK variant as closely as possible to the US standard. The E's new engines, too mean that it has closed the gap between previous US Army AH-64D and Rolls-Royce powered AH1.

On UK weapons, the Apache E could potentially field MBDA's helicopter-launched variant of its Brimstone 2 missile – now set to be trialed in tests in the US with a live fire test scheduled for later this year. With a similar form factor to Hellfire, MBDA's weapon, if integrated on AAC Apaches, could give international E operators an additional choice in weapons beyond Hellfire and JAGM.

With US Army Apache Es set to feature a 'take control of any UAV' capability in the future via MUM-TX, there is the potential that this too could feed into UK Apache upgrades – allowing AAC crews, for example, to take control of the Watchkeeper tactical UAV.

Finally, Boeing also foresees that the UK Apache AH-64E may also be a good candidate to repeat its performance-based logistics and support model from the RAF's Chinook fleet. The Chinook Through Life Customer Support (TLCS) has boosted mission availability (10% above the goal) and reduced costs since it was implemented in 2006. With PBL, the US Army has already seen ownership costs of its Apache fleet fall by 24%.

Little Birds get angry

From basic scout to Apache mini-me - AH-6i assembly line at Mesa. (Boeing) 

A tour of the Mesa facility this year was also notable in that a new type was in there – the AH-6i (International) Little Bird. The first seven production examples for an unnamed 'international customer' according to Boeing, but an open secret that is the Saudi Arabian National Guard. With the first production example back from the paint shop, deliveries are now close.

For the AH-6i, Boeing receives green‘ MD500 fuselages from MD Helicopters, which are then assembled at Mesa. The AH-6 packs the mission systems of the E model Apache into the frame of a MD500 helicopter – turning a light scout into a mini gunship. With the original AH-6 famously already used by the US Army's legendary Nightstalkers, the 106th Special Operations Regiment, as well as packing miniguns, unguided rockets, the AH-6i can also be used to transport SF troops into tight spots with a rear bench.

Interestingly, Boeing is already working on leveraging its work on the E model Apache to allow the Little Bird to control UAVs as well. Laser guided precision rockets, such a BAE System's APKWS are also under consideration.

As well as the 'foreign customer' of the Saudi National Guard, the AH-6 could also win other international buyers. Intriguingly, in April a FMS notice from the US Army was published for 72 AH-6is for a mystery buyer. Boeing now says that unusually this was not for a specific country or customer, but a pre-approval FMS 'contract vehicle' to allow the US to respond extremely quickly should a friendly country (or countries) need Little Birds fast.

One other future customer may be Australia, which in its Defence White Paper released in earlier this year, outlined a requirement for a“fleet of light reconnaissance and attack helicopters” for Special Forces support – to be able to deploy SF troops quickly anywhere in the world. Though not named in the Paper, the requirement would seem to point to a AH-6 Little Bird-style solution.

Chinook continues to evolve

A single CH-47F is at Mesa to use Arizona's good weather for blade testing. (Boeing) 

Finally, one helicopter looking a little out of place among the killer gunships at Boeing's Mesa facility was a CH-47F Chinook. This is down in Mesa for flight tests of the new advanced blade for the Block II 'F' upgrade. This swept-tip blade, will give the F an additional 2,000lbs of lifting capacity to the already highly capable tandem rotor helicopter, which will serve until 2062 – making it the first rotorcraft to be in service for 100 years.


AH-64E Apache and AH-6i Little Bird share common avionics and mission systems.

From a Cold War tank-killer, to a digital network node and even a future special ops laser gunship, the AH-64 Apache continues to evolve - and the Echo model is the most lethal yet. Furthermore, the economies of scale in the giant numbers built have enabled Boeing to drive down costs and lean production in an already highly efficient factory. New support models too, such as PBL are also means the warfighter today is incredibly getiing more capability, for less. One day it may be replaced but for now the Apache is still chief of gunships.        

17 June 2016