With a new powerplant stuck in supply chain issues and the absence of a new long-range missile, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), has observed the United States Army lacks a “clear modernization” plan for the AH-64E Apache helicopter.
According to reports, the observation was a remark of the HASC Chairman in response to the Army’s $10 million budget request for the Apache Future Development Program, part of the 2023 Defence Authorization Bill that was released last week.
While the helicopter is expected to be in service for the next 30 years until 2050, the remark noted that the “service has no comprehensive, budgeted plan to modernize the aircraft.”
The army is also yet to communicate plans to prepare the aircraft for receiving the under-development Improved Turbine Engine Programme (ITEP) powerplant. The ITEPs are expected to be installed on the UH-60 Black Hawks and even the Army’s Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft.
Also, the HASC expects a report from the army “analyzing the supply chain for the ITEP” by April 1, 2023, detailing each engine component made in the US and imported ones, along with an assessment of how COVID-19 might affect the ecosystem and supply chains.
The ITEP, developed by General Electric, had been delayed owing to Pandemic-induced industrial supply chain disruptions.
The GE’s T901 engine was selected over the one made by the Honeywell and Pratt & Whitney collaboration – the Advanced Turbine Engine Company. It was originally expected to provide the first engine in the last quarter of 2021, flight testing and airworthiness certification by early 2023, low-rate initial production to commence by late 2024, with full series production by 2026.
Another issue that might turn out to be a dampener has been the absence of a long-range air-to-surface missile, with the army making do with the Israeli Spike Non-Line of Sight (NLOS) missile.
The Indian Air Force too uses Apaches, 22 of which it purchased along with Chinooks in a $3 billion deal in 2015. The number was increased by an additional six Apaches at a cost of $800 million for the army following former US President Donald Trump’s visit in February 2020.
Boeing’s Vice President (International, Government and Defence) Torbjorn Sjorgen was recently quoted in another report that India was interested in buying more.
Of the IAF’s 22 Apaches, 11 possess the Longbow fire control radar system. Along with the Longbow radars, the Hellfire air-to-surface missiles can devastate enemy armor, earning the Apache the moniker, “tanker killers.”
It also carries Stinger air-to-air missiles. Apache’s chin-mounted gun can fire 625 armor-penetrating bullets per minute on ground infantry and lightly armored structures, making them a deadly asset in close-air-support, anti-insurgency and heavy ground assault roles.
Apaches In India-China Border Dispute
At the height of the standoff with China in eastern Ladakh, Apache helicopters were spotted flying around the Leh Air Base.
Both India and China had deployed armored units, including tanks, during the standoff, which began in May 2020 and continues to date, with disengagement having taken place at the mountain spurs near Pangong Lake and Galwan Valley.
Apache is rivaled by China’s Z-10 attack helicopter, which although effective, still doesn’t qualify in the heavy helicopter gunship category owing to its weak powerplant.
The Indian Air Force’s helicopter gunship fleet prior to the Apaches consisted of Soviet-origin Mi-35s Hind, which continues to be in service to this day. Many developing countries also use upgraded versions of the helicopter, which still is quite effective in kinematic performance and payload but lacks advanced avionics and a fire control radar.
The 104 Helicopter Squadron (Pioneer Rotarians) of the IAF operates the Mi-35s.
As for the US Army Apaches, their utility in an Indo-Pacific conflict, especially against China in the South and East China Seas is doubtful, given the more naval nature of the war, and the absence of heavy armor or bunkers on the high seas.
Neither will a scenario ever emerge where the US might undertake a land invasion of the Chinese mainland, with its primary orientation being defensive in nature, where it would have to thwart an attack on Taiwan.
A war in Europe against Russia is less likely, with the US already denied directly participating in Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine.
The only conceivable scenario under which they could be used against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would be a Chinese occupation of Taiwan, which would most likely be a counter-insurgency scenario.
This would entail massive urban destruction of Taiwan and likely collateral damage of its semiconductor forging factories, which supply chips to both the US and China itself – one of the major reasons why Chinese threats are just threats, with the driving philosophy being a “peaceful reunification”.
The United States has been struggling with technology, equipment and doctrine-wise to adjust to a new Great Power Contest, after having fought non-state actors and smaller militaries for nearly two decades.