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AH-64s Join The Navy
by James Dunnigan
May 6, 2014

In the last year the U.S. Army has been experimenting with the use of its AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships from navy ships. This is all about being ready to participate more fully in future military operations in the Pacific. For the last few years the United States has been shifting its military forces and war plans to the Pacific. Army helicopters operating from carriers and other warships is nothing new. It is an accepted practice when there is an emergency and in 1994 the navy took the air wing off one of its nuclear carriers and embarked fifty U.S. Army helicopters (from the 10th Mountain Division) for an operation in Haiti. At that time army AH-64s also operated from the helicopter pad on navy frigates. What the army proposes now is to set up a program to certify army helicopter pilots for regular operations from carriers. This means learning the navy procedures for helicopter operations on carriers and demonstrating the ability to do it the navy way. The U.S. Marine Corps is all for this, as it means more helicopter support for their riflemen as well as soldiers. The U.S. Navy is not so sure but is going along so far because they have been ordered to and because the marines think it’s a good idea.

Army aviation has long been involved in coastal operations and does so deliberately. For example, back in 2006 the army modified the radar on its AH-64s so that it could detect boats on the water. This would be used when AH-64s are operating along coasts, where there was no (or not enough) navy forces available to do the job. This is not the first time the army has developed sea control capability. As far back as the American Civil War (1861-4), the army bought, built or captured boats and ships to help it with operations along coasts or on rivers. This continued through every war since, despite U.S. Navy protests and attempts to keep the soldiers on land. In wartime, the protests are often absent, or muted. The air force gets in on this as well. During the last years of the Cold War, U.S. Air Force B-52s were equipped with anti-ship missiles, and the means to spot naval targets. Naval aviation has also made itself useful for land operations. After the Cold War ended, the navy found itself with a lot of late-model, but unneeded P-3 naval patrol aircraft. They tweaked the radars so land areas could be searched as well. Since then, P-3s have made themselves useful during several land campaigns, including support of SOCOM (commando) operations.

Meanwhile Britain went ahead and recently actually did what the U.S. Army proposes. For the last five years the British Army has been very successful operating their AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships off Royal Navy ships. The most famous of these operations involved the HMS Ocean (an amphibious assault ship with a carrier-like flight deck). During June 2011 four British AH-64s flew 30 sorties, and used missiles, rockets or 30mm cannon against 39 Libyan targets (armored vehicles, highway checkpoints, radars and patrol boats trying to lay naval mines.) The Apaches flew in pairs, and sometimes all four would go on a mission. The helicopters could get to the targets quickly (important if there were no fighter-bombers in the air) and could get close enough to avoid friendly fire incidents. The gunships operated so close to the ground that they provided a morale boost for the rebels, who rarely got to see their NATO allies in such detail. NATO flew 150-200 sorties a day in support of the Libyan rebels, with 40 percent of those sorties being armed combat aircraft (or helicopters).

Back in 2009 the British Army decided to train some of their pilots to operate off carriers. This training was conducted aboard the HMS Ocean. Eight pilots practiced day and night landings and takeoffs. While transport helicopters belong to the Royal Air Force, the AH-64s are owned by the army. The navy foresaw the possible need to operate some AH-64s, in addition to the transport helicopters normally carried on helicopter assault ships. Less than two years later, the navy got a chance to do just that. HMS Ocean normally carries 18-20 helicopters.

 


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