The AH-64 Apache has long served as one of America’s primary attack helicopters. The first iteration of the legendary attack aircraft took to the skies in 1975, with full production approved to begin in 1982 — making the storied platform yet another of the long list of U.S. military aircraft quickly approaching the end of their projected service lives. The Apache — like the B-1B Lancer, the B-2 Spirit, and so many other aviation hallmarks of American supremacy — is slated to be replaced in the coming years by a new platform that hasn’t fully manifested yet, leaving it in a sort of technological limbo. The Apache is getting too old to stay in the fight, and the U.S. Army needs to decide how best to keep it operational until a replacement can come to fruition.
“Even using the most aggressive plan they have to replace that fleet [the AH-64s] with something of the Future Vertical Lift family, there will have to be another evolution of some sort to keep the aircraft sustainable, ready and relevant to support the warfighter out to that time frame,” said Shane Openshaw, Boeing’s head of the Apache program.
Boeing has emerged at the forefront of finding solutions to today’s aviation quagmire — offering up a series of seemingly radical solutions that would keep some of America’s most prolific aircraft in the fight for years to come. Not long after word of the B-1B Lancer’s impending retirement, Boeing filed for a patent on a system that could turn the supersonic bomber into a heavily armed gunship.
The F-35 is slated to become America’s go-to carrier fighter, but Boeing, again aware that it will take years for the F-35 to reach the numbers (and operational capability) to usurp the Super Hornet as the nation’s primary carrier-based fighter, secured a contract with the U.S. Navy to deliver a massive technological overhaul to the existing fleet of Super Hornets. Boeing is well aware that its legacy platforms need to stay in service for longer than their existing equipment may allow — and they’re happy to break out a sketch pad to come up with creative ways to help their platforms evolve with the times. Now, it appears they’re looking to do the same for the Apache.
Actually, in the case of the Apache, that evolution may be the most dramatic yet. Boeing doesn’t just want to update the helicopter with more advanced systems… they want to add a propeller.
The update, which Boeing is calling the AH-64E Block 2 Compound, would include the addition of a larger main wing, an updated engine exhaust system, a large vertical tail fin, and — most interesting of all — a large, rear-mounted pusher propeller that aims to increase the Apache’s top speed and fuel efficiency at once.
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Boeing had actually proposed a number of these changes to the U.S. Army in the form of an all-new platform they called the AH-64X back in 2014. At the time, the Army passed on their proposal. Now, Boeing hopes to coax the Army into opening its checkbook by modifying existing platforms, rather than producing a whole new fleet of choppers. Currently, the U.S. Army operates 235 of their most modern AH-64E Guardians, along with more than 500 of the older Apache Longbows. The Guardians are actually already undergoing an update that includes upgrading a number of flight systems.
The Block II Apache would cost, according to Boeing, only 20% more than previous Apache Guardians (which ring in at around $33.6 million a piece).