01 May 2006

Rethinking Attack Helicopters

Because battlefield experience in Iraq has shown the AH-64 Apache is highly vulnerable to small-arms fire, it no longer will play a prominent role in the service’s deep-attack mission, said the Army’s head of doctrine.

Gen. William Wallace, who commanded ground forces in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and now heads the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, said he would shake up the way the Army conducts deep-attack operations.

“Less integration of Apache helicopters,” more Air Force ground-attack aircraft and “more use of Multiple Launch Rocket Systems, perhaps even with unitary rounds that are long-range precision,” Wallace told reporters at the Association of the United States Army’s winter symposium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in February. . . .

Army attack aviation was better suited to providing close-air support to friendly ground forces than in the deep-attack role.

The same report said the Army’s OH-58 Kiowas performed better than the Apaches in urban areas because their pilots were trained to fly close to the ground at high speed and use buildings and trees as cover.

From the April 17, Army Times via Murdoc Online.

The Kiowa comparison must hurt. The 1961 vintage Kiowa is one of the smallest and least well armed helicopters in the military which is not intended solely for transport roles (well, except for a handful of special operations helicopters). The 1986 vintage Apache in contrast, is the newest and most heavily armed helicopter in the military. The Kiowa had been scheduled to be replaced by the Comanche, a helicopter, a sort of Apache lite, before Rumsfield cancelled the project early in Bush's first term.

The Marines haven't been thrilled with the prospects of their attack helicopters either:

No U.S. Marine Corps attack helicopters was shot down during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), but the fleet was so heavily damaged in combat that service officials are expressing doubt about two fundamental wartime roles for rotor-wing aircraft, a senior commander said July 29.

Echoing recent concerns by some U.S. Army officials, Maj. Gen. James F. Amos, commander of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, said current tactics that allow attack helicopter crews to penetrate deep behind enemy lines on long-range strike missions and hover above cities to provide close air support are ill-advised.

Personally, I'm inclined to think that the best place for attack helicopters like the Apache is the one place that we don't have anything like it, the Navy. An attack helicopter like the Apache would be perfect for turning a small littoral combat ship or frigate into a high powered anti-piracy and anti-small craft platform, or as a way of defeating landing craft when defending against an amphibious invasion in a place like Taiwan.

The Army has already been training pilots and outfitting the helicopters for coastal missions, there isn't a lot of unexpected small arms fire on open water, and they provide the speed that is the achilles heel of every ship. Standard issue surface combatants in the U.S. Navy are hard pressed to top 40 mph, and while you could use a cruise missle, it doesn't make sense to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a missile to defeat at $30,000 speedboat, or a land based artillery position or tank directed at targets in coastal waters.

UPDATE: In their defense, Apache Helicopters have proven very well suited to escorting convoys in Iraq. Their altitude and speed allows them to see ambushes coming and they have the firepower to deal with them. Ground based patrols, in contrast, can confirm that areas along the convey route a secure much more slowly and are more subject to ambushes and IEDs themselves.


Roci said...

Good idea, putting apache on ships.

The calculation of defeating a $30K speedboat with a $100K missile is not cost savings, but cost avoidace. A single hit from an inbound missile, or explosives laden small craft can sink a ship worth many millions.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Fair enough. The reason to look at it in terms of the cost in the incoming vehicle is the asymettric war of attrition analysis. If your opposition can make you spend a lot to avoid a cheap attack, and they can repeat it over and over again, they can bankrupt you out of war.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

More history of AH-64 problems can be found here.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Some pros like using Apaches on Navy ships too.