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The Apache Needs a New Long-Range Missile. Badly.

  • The U.S. Army wants to fit the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter with a new long-range, air-to-ground missile.
  • The missile would attack targets when enemy air defenses are too strong.
  • The new missile requirement reflects harsh lessons the Army learned in the 1990s and 2000s.

    The U.S. Army is looking for a new long-range, air-to-ground missile system to arm the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter. The missile would allow Apaches to engage targets at long distances and use drones to spot enemy targets, allowing the choppers to stay safely away from enemy air defenses.

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    The Army calls the new weapon the Long Range Precision Munition (LRPM). The service is requesting funding to hold a competition for the LRPM, with a shoot-off between competing missiles in 2022. The Army will then select one or more promising missiles in 2023 and develop them through 2028, according to Defense News.

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    A U.S. Army Apache attack helicopter launching a Spike N-LOS missile, Yuma Proving Ground, 2019.

    U.S. Army

    Right now, the Army uses the Israeli-made Spike Non-Line of Sight (N-LOS) missile in the long-range role. Unlike the current AGM-114 Hellfire anti-tank missile, which has a direct fire range of 4.3 miles, Spike N-LOS has a range of 19.9 miles. Last March, an Army Apache helicopter successfully struck a target at 19.9 miles.

    Most Army missiles can only engage targets within the missile crew’s direct line of sight (LOS). A new generation of missiles, however, can engage targets beyond the launcher’s line of sight, hence the N-LOS designation. Newer missiles like Spike N-LOS use nose-mounted cameras and a secure data link to provide the missile crew with an in-flight view of the battlefield, allowing them to locate and destroy targets on their own.

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    The Apache helicopter’s primary armament is the AGM-114 Hellfire, whose range hasn’t increased much since its development in the 1980s. That’s a problem, as a new generation of Russian and Chinese air defense systems have made the skies much more dangerous.

    The Russian Tor (NATO code name: Gauntlet) surface-to-air missile system has a range of up to 9.3 miles, while the newer Pantsir S1 (Greyhound) system has a range of up to 12.4 miles. An Apache armed with Hellfire missiles would have to travel well within the combat range of a Pantsir S-1 to get into position to use its missiles.

    The Army’s search for N-LOS missiles is a long time coming. In 1999, the service deployed Task Force Hawk to intervene as part of a NATO force in the Yugoslavian Civil War. Army planners originally hoped to use Apache helicopters to strike Yugoslavian forces, but never actually used them due to a concern about losing helicopters to enemy air defenses.

    In the 2003 invasion of Iraq, an attempted deep strike by 31 Apaches of the 3rd Infantry Division resulted in all but one of the Apaches being damaged, and one being shot down. The Apaches telegraphed their intentions by flying over regime-friendly territory, warning Iraqi air defenses, who proceeded to shoot up the helicopters. The Army never attempted a deep Apache strike again.

    lrpm

    Drones like the RQ-7 could spot targets for long-range missiles on Apache attack helicopters, sparing the Apaches from enemy fire.

    U.S. Army

    The Apache is a well-armored, maneuverable helicopter, but the best defense is to strike from beyond the range of enemy air defenses. A future mission with the new LRPM might involve Apaches hovering in a safe location, sending smaller, quieter, and ultimately disposable drones like the RQ-7 Shadow into heavily defended areas. The drones would relay the location of enemy air defenses back to the Apaches, which would then destroy them with LRPM strikes.

    Once the enemy air defenses are stripped away, the main attack can commence. Apaches armed with the Hellfire and its replacement, the Joint Air to Ground Missile, would close in and destroy the rest of the enemy forces.

    LRPM is a long-needed modernization of Army attack helicopter firepower. It’s also possible that ground forces could adopt whatever missile Army aviators choose. A missile like Spike N-LOS is essentially precision-guided artillery, capable of flying around mountains, hills, and cities to not only scout, but also strike the targets hidden behind them.


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