AH-64 Apache: Boeing’s Tank-Busting Helo

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AH-64 Apache: Boeing’s Tank-Busting Helo

March 4th, 2023

7 minute read

In today’s article about the AH-64 Apache, Will Dabbs, M.D. gives us the full story of this attack helicopter. Used by the United States Army, this versatile attack helicopter is designed to operate in various roles including close air support, reconnaissance, and anti-tank warfare.

I have an acquaintance who was manning a Ma Deuce .50-cal. machine gun mounted atop an armored Humvee when his convoy rolled into a coordinated ambush by insurgents several years ago in Iraq. My buddy’s gun truck was part of a convoy of supply vehicles bringing ammunition, fuel, and food to a remote Allied outpost. The bad guys had done their homework and sited their attack well.

ah-64 apache helicopters in iraq
The Boeing AH-64 Apache is a proven attack helicopter design used by the United States and its allies for close air support. Image: CWO4 Daniel McClinton/U.S. Army

Fire poured in from PKM belt-fed machine guns alongside numerous AK rifles. RPG rockets arced into the convoy as well. My friend fired back as fast as he could keep his gun fed, but he could feel the engagement teetering.

ah-64 apache helicopter
Fittings outside the Apache allow each aircraft to extract another downed Apache crew. The downed pilots snap their survival vests onto the gunship and go. Image: NARA

Such combat actions become an almost sentient thing. The technical terminology is “gaining fire superiority”. The two elements exchange rounds until one side seems to gain an upper hand. At that point the other side either melts away to fight another day or stays and dies.

boeing ah-64 apache helicopters in flight
Two Boeing AH-64 Apache helicopters with the United States Army’s 6th Cavalry Regiment depart RAAF Base Townsville on their way to Williamson Airfield during Exercise Talisman Saber 17. Image: Cpl. Oliver Carter/Australian Army

Despite lighting up everything they could pack onto their security vehicles, my buddy felt this one going the wrong way. If the insurgents disabled a few critical vehicles and then swept the kill zone for survivors, this could be catastrophic. My pal said he felt the fear welling up.

ah-64e apache gunships
An AH-64E Apache of the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade departs for flight operations during Pegasus Forge IV on January 31, 2019. Image: U.S. Army

Unbeknownst to him, the convoy commander was frantically working the radio. Much hay is made about the utility of American rifles, machine guns and grenade launchers. However, I think the most effective weapon in any American arsenal is that encrypted radio.

us army ah-64 in australia
An AH-64 Apache helicopter from the United States Army’s 6th Cavalry Regiment departs RAAF Base Townsville on its way to Williamson airfield during Exercise Talisman Saber 17. Image: Cpl. Oliver Carter/Australian Army

A pair of AH-64 Apache attack helicopters swept over the convoy in moments, spitting death. The thermal imaging system built into the aircraft picked out hidden insurgents regardless of concealment. The M230 chain gun chattered out 30mm high explosive rounds while Hydra 70 rockets split the late afternoon sky. In moments the insurgents were all fleeing, dying or dead.

australian navy pilot examines the ah-64 helicopter
Royal Australian Navy pilot, Lieutenant Natalie Davies, has a close look at the cockpit of an U.S. Army AH-64 Apache near Kabul, Afghanistan during Operation Slipper. Image: Sgt. Ray Vance/Australian Army

Clearly, the AH-64 Apache offers simply otherworldly firepower.

Origin Story

The AH-64 was developed in the aftermath of the Vietnam War to counter the massed armor formations of the Warsaw Pact in Western Europe. While the AH-1 Cobra it replaced was an ad hoc development of the previous UH-1 Huey, the AH-64 was an all-new gunship designed from scratch. The Apache was everything the preceding Cobra wished it could be.

ah-64 flying over the republic of korea
An AH-64 in flight over Chick Do Island in the Republic of Korea. Image: MSgt. Sabastian J. Sciotti/NARA

For starters, the AH-64A had two T700-GE-701 turboshaft engines. This arrangement offered greater redundancy and survivability in combat. The additional power margins also allowed significant improvements in avionics, armor, and armament over the Cobra.

The Apache is crewed by a pilot in back and a co-pilot/gunner up front. It sports three main weapons. The M230 30mm chain gun is actually classified as an area weapon system. The gun is slaved to a helmet via a series of infrared sensors in the cockpit such that it automatically follows the shooter’s gaze. This allows the gunner to fire the weapon off-axis and put rounds wherever he is looking at the time. The gun mount has a certain amount of intentional imprecision built in so that the effect is more like a shotgun than a rifle.

ah-64d pilot
U.S. Army pilot assigned to 25th Infantry Division prepares to fly an AH-64 Apache helicopter for aerial gunnery qualification on Schofield Barracks, Hi., Nov. 29, 2018. Image: SSgt. Ian Morales/U.S. Army

Original Hydra 70 rockets were unguided, though there are guided versions in service today. Each packs roughly the same downrange thump as a 105mm howitzer round. The Apache’s primary weapon, however, is the AGM-114 Hellfire missile.

m261 rocket launcher being loaded on ah-64 attack helicopter
Soldiers of the 25th Infantry Division load rockets into the M261 launcher on the AH-64D Longbow Apache. Image: Sgt. Sarah D. Sangster/U.S. Army

Hellfire stands for “Helicopter-Launched, Fire and Forget.” Each missile weighs about 100 pounds, and the aircraft can carry up to sixteen of them. The Hellfire was originally designed to ride an invisible laser beam to its target. The Hellfire employs a top attack profile wherein the round climbs and then dives down onto the target from above where the armor on enemy vehicles is weakest. Current versions will reach out to between 7 and 11 kilometers.

dutch ah-64 longbow
A Dutch AH-64 Apache heads out on patrol in the Oruzgan Province of Afghanistan. Apache helicopters from the Netherlands Armed Forces were deployed to provide close air support to coalition forces. Image: Cpl. Hamish Paterson/Australian Army

Modern D- and E-model Apaches can fire the latest version of the Hellfire that is guided by the Longbow millimeter-wave radar system. On the AH-64D and AH-64E, this radar allows targets to be engaged in any weather despite smoke and battlefield obscurants. While the Hellfire was initially designed for the Apache, it has since been adapted to ship-based, vehicular, and unmanned drone platforms as well.

cockpit simulator for ah-64 apache
A view of the cockpit control panel in an AH-64 Apache helicopter training simulator. January 1, 1984. Image: NARA

Staying Abreast

The Apache has been steadily upgraded since its initial introduction in 1986. The latest AH-64E Apache Guardian is 48 feet long and sports a max gross weight of 23,000 pounds. Maximum speed in level flight is around 150 knots, or 172 mph. Maximum ordnance loadout is either 16 Hellfires or 76 Hydra 70 rockets. The M230 gun packs a basic load of 1,200 30mm high explosive rounds and cycles at 625 rounds per minute. The gun is electrically-driven via what looks like a bicycle chain and gimbles in a mount underneath the fuselage.

ah-64 apachee firing m230 chain gun
AH-64 Apache attack helicopter fires at targets with an M230 chain-driven cannon during gunnery qualification on Schofield Barracks, Hi., Nov. 30, 2018. Image: 1st Lt. Ryan DeBooy/U.S. Army

The AH-64E now utilizes upgraded T700-GE-701D turboshaft engines driving a four-bladed composite rotor system. Its state-of-the-art target acquisition and designation sensor array is digitally linked through the Joint Tactical Information Distribution System and can simultaneously control unmanned aerial vehicles over the battlefield. The targeting system can classify and threat prioritize up to 128 separate targets in less than a minute.

ground team works on m230 30mm chain gun
U.S. Army Spc. Scott Stranne (left) and Spc. Daniel Peterson perform maintenance on an Apache’s 30 mm chain gun. Image: MCS John M. Hageman/U.S. Navy

The newest Apache really doesn’t care whether it is day or night. The IHADSS (Integrated Helmet and Display Sight System) feeds imagery and data from the aircraft sensors into a monocle built into the helmet. As the pilot moves his head the turreted sensors follow. The result is unprecedented situational awareness and lethality day or night. 

ah-64 in australia for training
Lt. Col. John Davis briefs Lt. Gen. Rick Burr on the on a live-fire exercise with AH-64 Apache helicopters and M142 HIMARS in Australia. Image: Cpl. Tristan Kennedy/Australian Army


Nearly 2,500 Apaches have been produced. In addition to large-scale domestic production, the Apache is also built under license in the UK. The AH-64 serves in the militaries of sixteen allied nations to include Israel, Japan, Saudi Arabia, India, Taiwan, Qatar, Egypt, Greece and the UK.

ah-64 lands at sunset in iraq
A U.S. Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopter lands with the sun low over Camp Taji, Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Image: TSgt. Russell E. Cooley IV/U.S.A.F.

The days of chivalry and fairness in war are gone never to return. Nowadays it really doesn’t much matter how you play the game so long as you win. Of all the close support weapons wielded by Uncle Sam in his ongoing fight against the forces of darkness and oppression, few are as fearsome as the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter. It is the most effective helicopter gunship in the world.

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Will Dabbs, MD

Will Dabbs, MD

Will was raised in the Mississippi Delta and has a degree in Mechanical Engineering. After eight years flying Army helicopters, he left the military as a Major to attend medical school. Will operates an Urgent Care clinic in his small Southern town and works as the plant physician for the local Winchester ammunition plant. He is married to his high school sweetheart, has three adult children, and has written for the gun press for a quarter century.

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