The U.S. Army will begin operational testing of its new Block III version of the AH-64D Apache helicopter gunship in March, a service official told reporters Jan. 12.
"We're got the initial operational test and evaluation - the IOT&E - is taking place in March," said Col. Shane Openshaw, the Army's program manager for the Apache, at a luncheon hosted by Boeing. "The results of that will feed analysis and ultimately support a full-rate production decision that is scheduled for July or August of this year."
In the meantime, the Army is finishing up production of the Block II version of the venerable gunship.
The Army is down a fleet of less than 18 A-model Apaches "in tactical units" which need to be rebuilt into Block II aircraft, Openshaw said. The last of those remaining A-model aircraft will begin being remanufactured in May, he said. They will be the last Block II Apaches the Army is buying and will be delivered next summer.
"This comes at the just the right time. You just slip this through just as the budgets were shrinking down," said Dan Goure, an analyst at the Lexington Institute, Arlington, Va. "And now you have an attack helicopter fleet that will last you for quite a while."
Goure said the Block III will likely weather the looming budgetary cuts - which many expect will hit the U.S. ground forces the hardest - largely intact. "It's so close to being finished, if you don't, you'll end up with the additional cost for a very long time of a split fleet," he said, noting also that the AH-64D will be the core of the U.S. attack helicopter fleet for decades to come and will need to continue to be upgraded.
The Apache will continue evolve over the years, and will continue to add new technologies and new capabilities just as it always has, Openshaw said. The soon-to-be-operational Block III helicopter adds level-four control of unmanned aircraft, which means Apache pilots will be able control a drone's sensors and set way points for the remotely operated machine. By contrast the Block II offered only the ability to view video imagery from an unmanned aircraft.
An upgraded Apache might eventually pave the way for next generation helicopters that might emerge from the Army's Joint Multi-Role (JMR) project, Openshaw said.
"I believe that many of these kinds of technologies that we are current working on today will show up as subtle configuration changes to Apache overtime that will ultimately be the raw material, if you will, that will feed JMR," Openshaw said.