Apache earns its stripes above the Afghan battlefield

The new British-developed Apache as it is tested for the first time in a hostile environment.......

Apache earns its stripes above the Afghan battlefield
By Thomas Harding in Camp Bastion
(Filed: 23/06/2006)

After years of suffering derision for being over budget and late into service, the Apache attack helicopter has become a vital asset on the Afghan battlefield as a life-saver for paratroopers on the ground.

For the first time the sleek gunships have been tested in a hostile environment and have performed beyond expectation, said the Army Air Corps pilots who fly it.

The Apache attack helicopter in Helmand province

With an ability to pick out and shoot an insurgent up to two miles away, eight of the 38 million helicopters have been sent to Helmand in southern Afghanistan as part of the 3,300-strong British force that is attempting to bring law and order to a province overrun with Taliban and drug warlords.

It is the first time that the weapon has been used by the Army in combat.

"We will only engage enemy if it is entirely necessary but the message is we are not here to dish out sweets and if you take us on expect the consequences," said Lt Col Richard Felton, the commander of the joint helicopter force in Afghanistan.

"The Paras agree that we have been a great success to the extent that's it's been essential to the operations we have been on. It sends a message to the enemy and provides friends with reassurance.

"Is it value for money? In the past I found that difficult to explain but in the six weeks we have been out here the Apache has proven it is great value for money. It has saved lives already and offers tremendous protection for the troops on the ground."

The deployment of the new Apache last month came only after extensive problems were resolved to get the helicopters into service.

Bought at vast expense by Britain, it had been bogged down by delays, with procurement issues, such as the function of its radio system, and the lack of trained pilots all needing to be addressed before it could be brought into use.

Concerns about its vulnerability to attack were also raised after dozens of American Apaches on missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan were badly shot up from the ground.

But since finally deploying in Afghanistan in early May, the British-developed Apache has been involved with success in 10 firefights, the majority so far in support of American and Canadian troops, and has fired 1,200 rounds of 30mm ammunition from the machine gun mounted under its belly.

From its arsenal of weapons the helicopter has also fired a Hellfire anti-tank missile and some rockets.

Its inaugural use in support of British troops came earlier this month when the men of the 3rd Bn, the Parachute Regiment fought a six-hour battle in the town of Nauzad in which 21 Taliban were killed.

The pilots involved, who did not give surnames in case they are captured, yesterday spoke for the first time about their combat operations. Capt Nick, 29, from Sussex, was down to his last few minutes of fuel when he saw two Taliban shooting at the Paras from behind a wall.

Locking on to the targets by turning his head towards them with the 30mm cannon automatically following his gaze, the insurgents became the latest Apache victims.

"It was very satisfying at the debrief back at base when a lot of Paras came up to us and said 'That rocks, thanks guys'," he said.

Staff Sgt John, 37, said: "When the Taliban opened up we laid suppressing fire all around them. The Paras were very impressed with the service that we provided. The Apaches have saved lives here, without a doubt."

Apache Gunships are amazing pieces of kit. Talk about a force multiplier. They're so versatile; can engage hard targets, soft targets, small targets, large targets. They're a mixed bag of warfare, and that's why the nations on this planet who HONESTLY value their military and value offensive capabilites fly Apaches. It looks to me like the Brits fly the Apache Longbow (or some variation there of), meaning they fly the most potent version of the aircraft.

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