A war against Iraq would be the first battlefield test for the Army's Apache Longbow attack helicopters, considered the most lethal and sophisticated helicopters in the world. Correspondent Alisha Ryu visited a Longbow unit in northern Kuwait and reports on the new helicopters' advanced capabilities.
The Apache Longbow is an upgrade of the earlier Apache attack helicopters that saw extensive action in the 1991 Gulf War.
Twelve years ago, Apache A models armed with laser-guided Hellfire missiles destroyed an armored division of the Iraqi Republican Guards. Last year, Apaches supported American ground forces searching for Taliban and al-Qaida fighters in the mountains of Afghanistan.
Like its predecessor, the Apache Longbow is capable of destroying heavy armored vehicles from as far as 12 kilometers away. But the newer model is full of state-of-the-art electronics that can do much more than fire missiles.
The key to the Longbow is a highly-sophisticated radar system that can identify more than 120 fixed or moving targets at once. With the push of a button, the radar can tell a small computer inside a Hellfire missile the exact location of a chosen target.
The radar-guided Hellfires on the Longbow helicopters allow the pilot to fire and turn away from the target to seek safety as soon as he launches a missile. The laser-guided Hellfire missiles on the older A-model Apaches require the pilot to stay locked on his target for almost a minute while the missiles are in flight. Hovering in a combat area makes the low-flying aircraft extremely vulnerable to ground fire and heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles.
Each Longbow also has a built-in high-speed data modem, which enables the pilots to electronically send position and target information to each other. Captain Scott Myers, the commander of an Apache company in an aviation unit under the 3rd Infantry Division, says the Longbow's e-mailing capability allows him to know exactly where his men are in the battlefield at all times.
"That, to me, being a commander, is as useful as the radar system, because I can pass information back and forth to the aircraft without having to talk on the radio and a lot of it can be instantaneous," explained Captain Myers. "I can get their positions very quickly."
While no one doubts the Apache helicopter's lethal capabilities, there are some who doubt its safety and reliability.
Since the Apaches were introduced in 1984, the U.S. Army has grounded the aircraft five times to troubleshoot persistent problems. Last August, an Apache A model crashed during a training mission in South Korea, killing two crew members. Three weeks earlier, an Apache Longbow crashed during another South Korean training mission.
Nevertheless, Apache Longbows, with their new radar seeking system, are expected to play a major role on the battlefield in Iraq. Pilots confidently predict that even if Iraqi forces run from the Apache Longbows, they will not be able to hide.