Army's Apache gunships carry potent sting

Helicopters can destroy tanks from 5 miles away

March 17, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAMP UDAIRI, Kuwait - The Apache helicopter gunships have arrived, with their angular cockpits, snub noses and enough firepower to decimate tanks five miles away.

The Army's 101st Airborne Division has shipped 72 Apaches here to supply the unit's main punch in an Iraq war. Their missions could range from targeting Iraqi tanks to protecting American infantry.

Within this group are 48 advanced Longbow models that the 101st has never used in combat. Battles against Iraq would be the first real-world test for its bubble-shaped radar system, which is designed to find tanks and other targets automatically. All the pilot has to do is pull the trigger on the joystick-like controller and seek the next target.

The Apache, introduced in 1984 as a Cold War anti-tank weapon, impresses many of its pilots but is known to suffer in sandstorms.

The twin-rotor Chinook is more powerful, the Black Hawk more versatile, but the Apache is the most lethal, with Hellfire missiles, Hydra rockets and 30 mm rounds from a chain gun.

"This is the hot rod," says pilot Mark Borden, a 32-year-old chief warrant officer who has never seen combat.

"This is a bad, bad machine. I would not want to be a tank driver," says pilot Patrick Mahan, 45, of Mississippi.

Longbows and the older Apache Alphas - which took part in the Persian Gulf war and in attacks last year on al-Qaida forces in Afghanistan - look much alike. They have a spindly fuselage just 49 feet long. There are two seats, one in back for the pilot and one up front for the copilot/gunner, who normally directs the fire. The paint is gray-green, with a hint of sand lately. Most instruments in the Longbow are digital, in the Alpha, analog.

The pilots climb through Plexiglas hatches on the right side of the craft. The seats have little padding but are lined with Kevlar for protection against small-arms fire.

The Apache handles relatively well, pilots say. Top speed is about 200 mph, but normal cruising speed is 130 mph. They can usually fly three hours, but fuel load can be increased for longer mission.

Alphas and Longbows have advanced infrared systems to pick out targets by the heat they emit. Some Longbows have a "fire control radar" system that scans the horizon for tanks, radar sites and the like.

The system is programmed to determine which targets pose the greatest threat - anti-aircraft guns, say - and to draw a box around the targets on a screen in sequential order. Targets can quickly be parceled out to other Apaches nearby.

"It's a matter of pushing a couple buttons," said Capt. Terry Schooler, 26. "Send a target to this guy, send a target to that guy."

In theory, the gunner or pilot can simply pull the trigger to fire a missile or rocket. In practice, pilots say, a quarry should be confirmed by infrared sensor.

"Don't want to waste a Hellfire on a garbage truck," says Maj. Joe Crocitto, 37.

The sensor sits in a bucket-like pod on the helicopter's nose. Just above it is a second sensor, a night vision system for the dark flying that Apaches are often called on to do. Pilots can view the images through a monocle over the right eye.

The target sensor can zoom in on possible targets so that someone's uniform will be apparent in the green-shaded field, Borden says. The night vision cannot zoom, but computers can move it as the pilot or gunner turns his head.

The 30 mm cannon, mounted on the helicopter's belly, can be set to move in sync with the pilot. If the gunner looks right and sees enemy troops, he can shoot in the direction he is looking.

On the controller is a button with three settings. Once one is selected, firing requires only flipping up the safety and pulling the trigger. The choice of weapon mostly depends on the target. Hellfire missiles are meant primarily for tanks and heavy armor, Hydra rockets for lighter armor, and the chain gun for troops or trucks. The missiles can reach five miles, the rockets nearly as far. The 30 mm rounds will travel 2 1/2 miles.

For all its capabilities, the Apache has had setbacks. In 1999, the Pentagon grounded two dozen Apache Alphas that had been shipped to the Balkans for use in Kosovo, after two helicopters crashed in training.

But more recent successes in Afghanistan have helped redeemed its reputation. Last year, half a dozen Apaches hit targets in the Operation Anaconda attack on al-Qaida forces in eastern Afghanistan.

But the skirmish served as a reminder that the Apache has few defenses against rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. Three of the helicopters took major hits, and most rotor blades had bullet holes.

That is a concern in Kuwait. An Apache can warn of an approaching guided missile, but there is no early detection for a rocket-propelled grenade.

"We have no way of knowing," Borden says. "Best thing we can do is hide, and there are not many places to hide out here."

Sand is another concern. In a sandstorm, the Apaches could not fly, said Col. Gregg Gass, commander of the 101st Aviation Brigade. Even in decent weather, the sand will nick at the rotors, requiring frequent coats of black paint.

"As those blades go at Mach-whatever, it pits the leading edge and takes a lot of care after missions," Gass said. "Engines suck in all the sand, so we have to do engine flushings."

Borden says he has heard all of the cutting comments about the Apache.

"They make fun of us," he says, "until there are actually bullets coming our way."

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