AH-64E: Australian Army’s Future Proof Attack Helicopters

In one of the more remarkable Defence procurement coups in living memory, the army has managed to gain approval to purchase 29 new AH-64E Apache attack helicopters with very little scrutiny.

Estimated to be worth $4bn, the acquisition was pushed through without a tender and no public debate. They are intended to replace 22 Tiger armed reconnaissance helicopters that are performing well and which could continue to operate until 2040 — and beyond.

Built by Boeing, the Apache is an excellent platform — fast, heavily armed and well protected. They are the most prolific such helicopter in the Western world, with 2400 of them in service with 19 countries.

In this region, they are used by Indonesia, India, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Their first flight was in 1975 and they have been progressively updated since and have seen service in numerous conflicts, including Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

In comparison, the Tiger — manufactured by Europe’s Airbus — is in service with four countries: France, Germany, Spain and Australia.

While Apache remains in production, that is not the case for Tiger with only 180 in existence — though, like all complex military systems, they will continue to be supported and upgraded for their lifetime.

The Australian history with Tiger has been complex, with the early years of ownership plagued by poor availability and high operating costs. While France and Germany have used their Tigers in heavy combat — they are currently deployed in Mali and previously saw service in Afghanistan — that has not been the case for ours which have never fired a shot in anger.

However, the availability of Australian Tigers started to improve rapidly from about 2016 and, while support arrangements are not perfect, the performance of the helicopters themselves is now described by users as excellent.

They have successfully participated in numerous exercises and have been deployed on the RAN’s Canberra-class amphibious assault ships and are an essential element of army’s combined arms doctrine. The reasons why army is seeking to replace them when they have a great deal of flying life left remain opaque.

The twin-engine Tigers and Apaches have a large number of similarities: they are both armed with a chin-mounted 30mm cannon, air-to-ground missiles and unguided rockets, they each have a crew of two and considerable growth potential.

The main difference is in their weight: Apache is 10 tonnes, the Tiger considerably lighter at 6 tonnes. This alone tells a large part of the story: the extra weight of Apache comes not from a greater payload — the two types are almost identical — but because of the amount of protective armour it carries.

Apache is designed to withstand heavy ground fire and was conceived at the height of the Cold War. It flies with 1100kg of armour plate embedded in the structure and consequently needs turboshaft engines that are 50 per cent larger and use much more fuel — 1500kW of power versus just under 1000kW for Tiger.

Tiger, which was designed in the 1990s, relies for protection by placing much greater emphasis on being fast, agile and able to fly extremely close to the ground.

About 80 per cent of it is built from composites — carbon fibre and Kevlar — with the balance coming from aluminium and titanium. This not only makes it lighter but also more corrosion resistant — an important consideration for maritime missions.

Apache can carry a mast-mounted Longbow radar; Tiger users say the day/night electro optics means that a radar does not add much additional capability. In any case, in a mixed fleet using Link 16 sensor data could be shared among all of the helicopters.

In Afghanistan, where France deployed Tigers in 2009, they often operated with US forces using Apaches.

For some missions such as “convoy overwatch”, Tigers were preferred because they have longer range — a consequence of their lighter weight — and their 30mm cannon was found to be more accurate than those of the US machines. However, the Apaches had better connectivity with Link 16 — a capability that the Tigers lack, despite offers by Airbus to Australia to upgrade them.

An unintended consequence of early poor Tiger availability is that they have a huge amount of fatigue life remaining. On average they have flown 2400 hours and can easily manage 6000 without being modified — and 8000 hours is possible with some minor changes that are being undertaken by their European users. Translated into years, this means that they could still be flying safely for another 20 years.

The unanswered question for Defence is why not retain the Tiger fleet — and by all means add 29 powerful Apaches to the mix. This would more than double army aviation’s firepower and would provide it with more options to respond to different contingencies.

Since Apache is larger as well as heavier, it cannot use all of the existing Tiger infrastructure so new hangars are likely to be required, meaning that the two types could comfortably operate side-by-side from their base in Darwin.

Tiger is largely supported in Australia. The helicopters themselves are maintained on base in Darwin and heavier work is carried out by Airbus Helicopters at their facility in Brisbane.

The engines and electro-optic system are produced by the French company Safran and are overhauled and updated at Bankstown Airport in Sydney. Support arrangements for Apache are still being defined — though Boeing Defence Australia has a substantial local industrial base.

Apache has rotor blades that are a metre longer than those of Tiger — and when safety margins are included it looks like very few of the existing facilities on base in Darwin can be used so everything will need to be rebuilt. A more sensible arrangement would be to keep the existing infrastructure for Tigers and add on a larger hangar for Apaches.

More aircrew and maintainers would be required, but due to the support of the government, finding extra money does not seem to be a problem for Defence.

Several countries operate two types of armed helicopters — including the US and France — and, given Australia’s deteriorating strategic circumstances and the need for more firepower, it is something we should also consider.

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