This week’s announcement from the British Army that its newly rebuilt Apache AH-64E helicopter gunships are ‘battlefield ready’, illustrates how genuinely lethal and capable the UK Armed Forces can be. It also reminds us just how broken our defence procurement system truly is.
The Army says that it will have 50 AH-64Es by 2024, replacing its previous fleet of 67 AH-1s: numbers are going down by a full quarter.
That’s a big loss. As a former infantry junior commander I have personally witnessed the Apache’s awesome and ferocious capabilities in Helmand Province. It truly is a magnificent battle-enabling piece of kit: there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever on this
The issue is simply that the British Army should have just bought American Apaches in the first place.
Our Apache AH-1 helicopter was ordered back in 1996: Britain sensibly avoided joining in with the disastrous Eurocopter Tiger, instead choosing the proven American option. Sadly, we didn’t just buy helicopters: although hundreds of Apaches had been made by Boeing in the USA, we set up an entire new assembly line at Westlands (now Leonardo) to assemble our 67 choppers. In fact the first eight were made by Boeing anyway, so the British line produced just 59 before shutting down. We also fiddled needlessly with the design, fitting different engines among other things.
The result of this was that a British Apache, depending on the figures you choose, cost anywhere from three to five times as much as a US-made export one. It also caused various UK-specific problems that had to be sorted out, meaning that the first Apache regiment did not go operational until 2005. Our Apaches often needed different, UK-specific parts: we couldn’t draw on the same massive system that supported the vast worldwide fleet of US-made Apaches. At one point in 2008, just 20 of our 67 helicopters were actually flyable.
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