How UK's Apache helicopters could aid Libya mission

By Caroline Wyatt
Defence correspondent, BBC News

  • Published
Apache helicopter
Image caption,
The Apache helicopter is prized by troops because of its hardiness and versatility

The Taliban call it the Mosquito. But they know its bite is lethal, and they fear it accordingly.

But for British forces on the ground in Helmand, Afghanistan, the sight and sound of an Apache hovering in the skies above is a comforting sensation.

The ground-attack helicopter is piloted by a two-man crew from the Army Air Corps, who are trained as soldiers first and airmen second.

They know just how it feels to be in that vulnerable position on the ground.

The plan now is to use the UK's Apaches in Libya - following approval of their deployment by David Cameron - where they can offer similar deterrence or reassurance, depending whose side the ground forces are on.

The benefits of attack helicopters are that they can stay above potential targets, offering deterrence, intelligence and close air support for hours at a time, its day and night sights offering a clear view for miles from its position high above the battlefield.

But the Apache is also able to get in close if necessary, deploying its 30mm cannon or wing-mounted 70mm aerial rockets, or its Hellfire missiles, effective against tanks and all types of armour.

The original US Apaches first had a significant effect on operations in the 1991 Gulf War, where the US Army deployed 288 of the attack helicopters, and the British models have also proved their worth since coming into service with the Army Air Corps in 2004.

Desert heat

This week the Army Air Corps marked the 100,000th flying hour in their Apaches, a milestone passed on operations in Helmand Province, where its squadrons have been continuously deployed for more than five years.

Those hours are equivalent to a single helicopter staying aloft for 11-and-a-half years.

The Apache is prized by its crews and the troops it supports because it can operate day or night, in bad weather and in climates ranging from the chill of the Arctic to the heat of the desert, with dust and sand kept out of the engine by special filters.

This helps avoid the problems faced by other helicopters in Afghanistan, many of which had to be adapted to work in 'hot and high' conditions.

So for Apaches, operating over Libya should not throw up too many technical difficulties. However, the ability to operate much closer to targets brings its own dangers. The four Apache helicopters on board HMS Ocean, the British warship thought likely to arrive in Libyan waters by the end of the week, will face real challenges when they begin operations.

The use of ground attack helicopters is as close as the UK and France can get to Col Gaddafi's forces without putting in ground troops, although some French special forces and other specialists are already on the ground to help.

Sending the Apaches and French Tiger helicopters into the Libyan campaign is a calculated political and military gamble, with more danger to the two-person crew on board compared to fast jets which can fly high enough to stay out of trouble.

The risk to the helicopters' crews is that Libya still has some air defences, and pro-regime forces are known to possess thousands of portable anti-aircraft missiles as well as truck-mounted systems.

The main reason for using attack helicopters is their ability to target individual snipers or groups of regime forces hiding amongst civilians, or in buildings such as schools and hospitals, with less risk of collateral damage compared to using larger missiles launched from 20,000ft (6km) away.

But the downside is that being closer to the target also means being closer to Libyan rocket-launchers or heavy-machine gun fire, increasing the risk of British and French casualties.

However, the Apache and the French Tiger attack helicopters are weapons systems which some in Nato hope will be a game-changer in this conflict, as the near stalemate drags on despite precision bombing raids by the RAF and other countries' air forces. While the raids continue to degrade Colonel Gaddafi's forces' abilities to communicate, defend themselves and re-supply, they have not yet helped the rebels dislodge the Colonel himself.

The Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir David Richards, called recently for the bombing campaign to be widened and deepened, to increase the pressure on Col Gaddafi and his regime still further, and to demonstrate that the vice is tightening and that the Libyan leader must go.

This helipcopter deployment is evidence of that desire, and the hope is that the use of ground attack helicopters will help tip the regime over the edge, and ultimately protect Libya's civilians before many more are killed.

But it remains a gamble, and some MPs have already asked if this is evidence of 'mission creep'. Others may think back to the impact back at home of the US Black Hawk helicopters shot down in Mogadishu in 1993, or in more recent years, the helicopters brought down in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ultimately, the pilots will have to rely on their training, and the tactics, techniques and procedures which they have honed in their many missions over Afghanistan and Iraq to help them steer clear of enemy missiles, as the Nato-led mission over Libya enters a new phase.