August 14, 2010: Over the last eight years, the U.S. Army developed and began installing a new fire control system for its AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships. Called Arrowhead, it uses the latest night vision devices (light enhancement and thermal, or heat, based) and fire control electronics to enable AH-64 crews to operate more safely, and effectively, at lower altitudes and in any weather. This is particularly critical in urban areas.
Work on Arrowhead got a boost after the Iraq invasion in 2003, which was followed by a growing amount of urban fighting. This created the need for an AH-64 that could hover at 800 meters (2,500 feet) altitude (safe from most small arms fire) and use its high resolution sensors to see who was doing what for out to eight kilometers (five miles) away. Arrowhead could do that, and now nearly all AH-64s now have Arrowhead, and many transport helicopters are getting it as well, to make night flying safer.
Over a decade earlier, the army developed another advanced fire control system for their AH-64s, Longbow. But this system was designed for the original mission; flying at higher altitudes, looking for and destroying distant enemy armored vehicles. The Longbow allowed the AH-64 to go after armored vehicles at night and in bad weather. In the past, potential American enemies practiced more moving their armor at night and bad weather, to avoid helicopters armed with long range missiles (like Hellfire or TOW). Longbow was doubly lethal because it was designed to avoid giving away its position when using its radar. AH-64s also had electronic countermeasures. Arrowhead, on the other hand, made night and bad weather deadly for enemy troops thinking they could sneak through urban areas unobserved. Longbow could not spot these guys, but Arrowhead could, and did.
The next version of the AH-64 is the Block III. This version had its first flight two years ago. The army will be upgrading all of its 634 AH-64s to the new Block III standard, a process that won't be completed until 2020. The first Block IIIs will enter service next year. Block III has a lot of improvements. One of the notable ones is more powerful and fuel efficient engine, as well as much improved electronics. Block III will also have Internet like capabilities with other aircraft and ground troops. Block III will be able to control several UAVs, and launch missiles at targets spotted by its UAVs. The Block III radar will have longer range and onboard computers will be much more powerful. The electronics will be easier to upgrade and maintain. The combination of Longbow, Arrowhead and Internet capabilities is expected to greatly increase the capabilities of the AH-64.
The 7.5 ton AH-64D carries a pilot and a weapons officer, as well as up to 16 Hellfire missiles (plus the 30mm automatic cannon). Sorties average three hours. The AH-64 can operate at night and has a top speed of 260 kilometers an hour.