UK Apache replacement held up by AgustaWestland, BBC report states

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Gareth Jennings, London - IHS Jane's Defence Weekly
10 March 2015



The UK's early-model Apaches, one of which is seen here operating from HMS Ocean, will soon need to be replaced. According to the BBC, AgustaWestland is delaying the MoD in buying the latest AH-64E model direct from the United States. Source: Crown Copyright
The UK's efforts to sustain its Apache attack helicopter capability are being seriously hampered by lobbying from AgustaWestland, according to a BBC report published on 7 March.

With the British Army's 66 AgustaWestland-Boeing WAH-64D Block I Apache Longbow AH.1 helicopters soon needing replacement due to obsolescence, the Ministry of Defence's (MoD's) preferred option of buying the new AH-64E Apache Guardian directly from the United States is being delayed by AgustaWestland lobbying for work on any such procurement programme, the report quoted government sources as saying.

According to the BBC, Boeing has offered to sell the AH-64E to the UK at GBP20 million (USD30 million) per aircraft (taking advantage of a US Army multi-year procurement package). If the helicopters were to be licence-built or modified by AgustaWestland, as was the case when the WAH-64D Block I helicopters were first acquired in the 1990s, this sum would more than double to GBP44 million.

Deciding how to proceed is becoming ever more urgent for the MoD, as the processing chips that drive the early-model Apache systems are no longer made, and the stockpile that Boeing has built up is expected to be depleted by around 2017.

Defence chiefs fear that delays of this nature may result in a capability gap between the older WAH-64Ds having to be retired around this date, and a replacement being introduced. According to the BBC, the process has now been put back until after the General Election on 7 May, and a decision will not be taken until March 2016. This could mean a replacement platform not entering service until about 2020.

The MoD has been undertaking a capability sustainment programme (CSP) to consider its future attack helicopter options (at a fleet strength of 50 platforms), but has declined to say when it will report the study's findings. The AH-64E is understood to be the favoured option, with others being the procurement of a new helicopter type altogether or even scrapping the capability.

In a response to the BBC report, AgustaWestland said that the company "is currently responding to an MoD Attack Helicopter Capability Sustainment Programme request for information to help them make an informed decision on the future of this key capability. AgustaWestland has a proven track record of delivering value for money on the UK Apache programme."

This story, first published on 10 March, has been updated with a comment from AgustaWestland.

ANALYSIS

While AgustaWestland's lobbying efforts have been described by some as an attempt at 'gold plating' its involvement on any future UK Apache programme, it should be noted that, while its participation in the original WAH-64D procurement did push up the unit cost, it also delivered to the British Army what was widely regarded to be a superior product to that fielded by the US and others.

As well as licence-building the airframes at its Yeovil plant in southern England, AgustaWestland also undertook enhancements that included swapping out the standard General Electric T700 engines for the more powerful Rolls-Royce RTM 322; improved countermeasures in the Helicopter Integrated Defensive Aids System (HIDAS); UK-specific communications systems; clearance of new weapon types; the integration of ballistically-protected external drop tanks; as well as a fully marinised airframe (an enhancement also adopted by the Netherlands), which included the fitting of flotation devices and other naval features.

When the UK's Apache requirements were drawn up in the mid-1990s, no one could have foreseen their eventual use in Afghanistan and Libya but, as it turned out, these AgustaWestland improvements could almost have been tailor-made for both of these conflicts.

The new engines in particular vastly improved the Apache's performance in the 'hot and high' conditions of Afghanistan, to the extent that the UK was able to fly its helicopters in that theatre with the mast-mounted radar still in place, whereas the US and others had to remove theirs due to weight and power constraints. For its involvement in Libya, the naval enhancements enabled the Apache to operate from the deck of the Royal Navy's HMS Ocean helicopter carrier with little need for adaptations to be made first.

Another factor in the MoD's decision to include AgustaWestland in its original Apache procurement was that of UK-certification of the airframes. This is a factor that is likely to become even more important with any future procurement, as evidenced by the problems surrounding the Royal Air Force's RC-135W Rivet Joints, which were bought off-the-shelf from the United States.

For the MoD, however, the question must be whether in these trying fiscal times the increased costs that come with such AgustaWestland improvements can be justified for any future Apache procurement. Whatever the answer to that question happens to be, all sides will doubtless want to see the British Army equipped with the latest variant of arguably the world's most advanced attack helicopter at the earliest opportunity.
UK Apache replacement held up by AgustaWestland, BBC report states - IHS Jane's 360
 
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