By late 2020 the U.S. Army will begin up updating its AH-64E Apache helicopter gunship hardware and software to what is called Version 6. This is a significant upgrade because it makes the AH-64E more effective against sea-going targets. Since the 1990s the AH-64 has become increasingly popular as a naval weapon, often operating from aircraft carriers or the helicopter pads of smaller warships, in addition to helping patrol and guard coastal waters when based close to the water. Even before the latest update, the AH-64 was built to handle salt-water conditions via anti-corrosive components, especially the rotor blades. Version 6 items include changes for naval users to the radar and fire control. The radar now takes into account the sea state (how rough the seas are) to obtain more accurate detection and identification of ships and display that information as a unique icon on the multifunction flat-screen displays in the cockpit. Detection range of that radar has been increased from eight to 16 kilometers. This makes the AH-64E more useful for users in the Persian Gulf and off the coast of Korea where swarms of small armed boats are a danger. Version 6 optimizes the AH-64E fire control system for detecting, identifying and attacking such small boats. Another popular Version 6 feature is improvements to the engine and the rotors. Still on the to-do list are requests for changes in the rotor folding capability that allow rotors to be folded and unfolded more quickly for storage on ships.
The AH-64E is the latest iteration of a gunship originally designed as the tank buster, but has since become very effective against other types of targets. First, the AH-64 was modified to be more effective against lightly armed ground troops, especially irregulars like Islamic terrorists. The last several upgrades have made the AH-64 a potent naval weapon.
The AH-64 was first used by the U.S. Army in 1984 when the AH-64A entered service. So far about 2,200 Apaches have been delivered to customers in various versions. The latest model, the AH-64E, entered service in 2011 and attracted many export customers, including India, Saudi Arabia and Britain. The AH-64 is a heavily armed and armored attack helicopter with a maximum takeoff weight of 11.5 tons and a top speed of 279 kilometers per hour. Initially, the AH-64E had new features including the improved Longbow fire control radar and the capability to cooperate with UAVs. The AH-64E can carry up to 16 Hellfire missiles or 38 smaller APKWS missiles in addition to a 30 mm M230 autocannon. Both missiles are laser-guided and have a max range of eight kilometers. A pair of Stinger air-to-air heat-seeking missiles often carried as well for use against enemy helicopters or, in desperate situations, low flying fighter aircraft.
The export sales are particularly valuable because they usually include a stock of spare parts, including replacement engines, the AN/ASQ-170 target acquisition systems, Pilot Night Vision Sensors, Fire Control Radars and other electronics plus related equipment, support, training, and logistics. Also ordered are weapons, mainly ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles) like Hellfire and (since 2015) the smaller APKWS ATGM and some unguided 70mm Hydra rockets (which APKWS is based on) as well. Less frequently some AIM-92H Stinger air-to-air missiles are purchased as well.
The U.S. Army began receiving the AH-64E in 2011 and mass production began in 2012. AH-64E had its first flight in 2008. Initially, the AH-64E was called the AH-64D Block III but the upgrades were so extensive it was decided to call it the AH-64E. Among the 64E upgrades are more powerful and fuel-efficient engines, as well as much improved electronics. AH-64Es will also have Internet like capabilities enabling these gunships to quickly exchange images, video, and so on with other aircraft and ground troops. AH-64Es will be able to control several UAVs and launch missiles at targets spotted by these UAVs. The AH-64E radar has longer range and onboard computers are much more powerful. The electronics are easier to upgrade and maintain. The combination of improved fire control and Internet capabilities greatly increase the capabilities of the AH-64.
The last AH-64A was taken out of service in 2012 for an upgrade to the AH-64D standard. The AH-64B was an upgrade proposed for the early 1990s but was canceled, as was a similar “C” model upgrade. Some of these canceled improvements were in great demand. Thus the “B” and “C” model upgrades were incorporated in the AH-64D Block I (1997). The AH-64D Longbow (because of the radar mast, making it possible to see ground targets and flying obstacles in all weather) models began appearing in 2002. By 2006, over 500 American AH-64As had been upgraded to AH-64Ds.
By now over 600 army AH-64s have been upgraded to the new AH-64E standard. The army goal is to have 791 AH-64Es, most of them upgraded AH-64Ds plus some new built AH-64Es. All army AH-64Es are receiving the Version 6 upgrade as are a growing number of export customers.