The Apache stands amongst a number of weapon systems, such as the M1 Abrams tank and the F-15E Strike Eagle, that entered service in the 1980s and proved their mettle in the 1991 Gulf War. Apaches fired the first shots of that conflict, taking out Iraqi low-band radars with Hellfire missiles, clearing the way for the initial strikes by F-117 stealth fighters. A total of 277 Apaches were deployed in the conflict, claiming the destruction of 278 Iraqi tanks as well as numerous other targets, a high “rate of return” by the standards of most weapons systems. Only one Apache was lost in combat.
Now the U.S. Army will spend billions of dollars over the next decade to upgrade its iconic Apache helicopters to the latest—and most likely, last—variant, the AH-64E “Guardian.” Attack helicopters are responsive and have a relatively precise means of unleashing heavy firepower where it’s needed most, but unlike main battle tanks or jet fighters, even an armored helicopter is vulnerable to low-tech machine guns, anti-aircraft cannons and even rocket-propelled grenades; let alone surface-to-air missiles.
In later conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, AH-64s continued to prove their deadly effectiveness, but couldn’t avoid losses from ground fire, including during an infamous raid against the Iraqi Medina Division that a strike group of 31 Apaches badly shot up by heavy machine guns and anti-aircraft cannons. This new technology promises to do something about that. Time to wait and see.