Magazine article The Spectator

The Wrong Apache for This Warpath

Magazine article The Spectator

The Wrong Apache for This Warpath

Article excerpt

THE 'Apache' lifts off with a thunderous roar, tilts its menacing nose to 25 degrees to get into its low fast-flying mode, then accelerates like a Ferrari to 110 knots. With two other 'Apaches' we are off to knock out a Serb radar post that has been spotted `locked on' to one of our aircraft some 20 kilometres distant.

The ground briefing a few minutes earlier was tense. It is snowing, with visibility down to 100 yards at best plus a 27-knot headwind, and we are flying into unfriendly territory. We hurtle at a height of ten feet, below the ground-hugging cloud, to dodge enemy fire. Coveys of partridges scatter below in terror.

Out of the window, on either side of this evil-looking giant insect, I can see, three feet away, huge pods containing 16 Hellfire anti-tank rockets. To my left is a British general, the Director of Military Operations (DMO), come along to study the form. At a staggering array of controls in front of me are an Army Air Corps warrant officer and an NCO.

There is constant chat over the headsets, as the commander talks to an Awac aircraft providing cover above us - `Hello, Magic....' - or issues comforting instructions to the pilot: `See those pylons ahead; try and miss them; take us under the wires . . . through that gap in the trees, end of brown field....'

Alarmingly, the `missile approach warning' flashes briefly, but we are laden down with DAS (Defensive Aid System) `chaff dispensers. Small mirror eyes at front and rear are there to pick up any SAM missiles that may be heading our way.

A tight turn to port, then we hover below tree level as the rest of the flight assembles, moving sideways, crablike. 'A little more cautious . . . Let's see if it's clear ahead....'

We move up just above tree level into firing position. It is the moment of maximum danger - what seems like a very long ten seconds, with the 'chopper' at its most exposed and vulnerable: '4, 3, 2, 1 . . Steady. Prepare to fire . . . Missile gone. Hold position to check.'

The radar post is confirmed as destroyed, we scurry home in the increasingly vile weather at 90 knots, a safe 60 feet above the ground. All our planes return safely.

The only trouble with this heroic scenario is that the operation actually took place from Army Air Corps HQ at Middle Wallop, Hampshire, over a year ago. The `Serb radar post' was sited on Worthy Down, the other side of the river Test. Helicopters taking part were not state-ofthe-art Apaches, but ancient British Lynxes.

The exercise was simulated with great realism - even down to the driving snow. In fact, the British army will not receive the Weston AH 64 equivalent of the latest US Apache 'D' until next year; at a cost of 7 billion in development. Estimated price tags on each of the AH 64s are set now at 16 million, almost twice that of the latest Challenger tank; but this will almost certainly be inflated by date of delivery.

Unless they are axed under a further defence cut, the army will receive just 48 of this new 'ultimate' battlefield weapon though not until the year 2003. The Americans will have more than 800.

The charm of the Apache is that its radar enables it to fly in all weather, even Balkan. It can achieve deep penetration attacks in enemy territory, with a range of two hours on its internal fuel tanks alone, giving it a useful capacity to 'loiter', looking for targets. Its deadly weaponry of rockets and link-cannon means that a flight of three could knock out the best part of an armoured regiment - always provided, under Serbian conditions, that a regiment can be found and properly identified. …

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