Army Apaches are sometimes known as the "Black Death," and Afghan insurgents referred to it as "The Monster." Here's all the ways it terrifies — and kills — its enemies.
The Black Death. The Monster. The Rifleman of the Sky.
The Apache is a lethal and feared military monstrosity that rakes its claws across the battlefield and leaves shattered bodies and buckets of gore in its wake. Here's how it kills you — and anyone nearby. And anyone within a few miles.
An Apache sits on the airfield in Germany in 2018. The Apaches main armament in the U.S. consists of rockets, missiles, and a chain gun. The chain gun is visible under the cockpit. The missile racks are mounted on either side of the Apache body and the rocket pods are the pieces with the honeycomb pattern mounted on the outside of the wing stubs.
(U.S. Army Charles Rosemond)
First, lets take a look at the Apache armament. While it can be fitted with other missiles and guns, Apaches are usually deployed with three offensive weapons: Hellfire missiles, guided and unguided rockets, and a 30mm chain gun that's often described as an automatic grenade launcher.
All three of them are highly capable, and all of them kill in their own special way.
First, the chain gun. It's commonly loaded with M789 High-Explosive, dual-purpose ammunition. When this is fired at personnel on the ground, it does look a lot like they're getting attacked by an automatic grenade launcher. The weapon is fired in bursts with over two rounds per second striking the ground, all of which explode soon after, shredding the bodies of those targeted.
A U.S. Army Apache helicopter fires its M203 chain gun during an exercise in Georgia in 2018.
(U.S. Army 1st Lt. Ellen Babo)
The chain gun ammunition is dual-purpose and is designed to penetrate armor at ranges of up to 3 kilometers. Against older tanks, these rounds pierce the hull and blow up inside or nearly pierce it and then explode, turning the remaining armor into shrapnel that flies through the crew compartment. The helicopters carries up to 1,200 of these rounds.
Most modern tanks can survive this onslaught, but they'll likely lose any externally mounted equipment, potentially including their main gun. For these rugged targets, the Apache will typically turn to its Hellfire missiles.
There isn't a known tank that the Hellfire missile can't kill, and the Apache can carry up to 16 of these bad boys if it foregoes rockets. The Apache originally carried laser-guided Hellfires, but now it often carries radar-guided Longbow variants of the missile which the pilot can fire and forget about. It'll get to the target on its own.
A U.S. Army Apache helicopter flies over Georgian tanks during a live-fire exercise in Georgia in 2018.
(U.S. Army 1st Lt. Ellen Babo)
While there are now air-to-air and surface-to-air versions of the Hellfire, the Apache is essentially always equipped with the air-to-ground version in the U.S. arsenal. It has a variety of available warheads, including thermobaric, tandem charges, shaped charges, and blast fragmentation.
That basically means that the Apache can use the missile against enclosed structures, any-and-all tanks, and soft vehicles and personnel, but it does have to decide what it will likely be attacking before departing the base.
An Army Apache helicopter fires rockets during a live-fire range in Korea in 2014.
(U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Vincent Abril)
Finally, the Apache carries rockets. Historically, this was the Hydra rocket, a 70mm unguided weapon. But then BAE Systems rolled out the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System, a kit that gives guidance to dumb rockets. So now, the pilots can send their rockets with warheads between 8 and 15 pounds.
These rockets' payloads can be high explosive, but they can also be filled with darts called flechettes that zip through human flesh and bones, shredding arteries, nerves, and other flesh, and quickly ending life. Occasionally, the rockets are used with parachuting illumination payloads or CS gas.
So, when Apaches are flying at you, they can choose to kill you with a chain gun, a warhead, or rockets, all of which can explode on impact or carry a variety of other payloads. But what really makes the Apache so dangerous is how far away it can kill you from.
A U.S. Army Apache helicopter returns from a maintenance test flight in 2018. The disc on top is a radar that allows to Apache to detect and engage targets from up to 3 miles away.
(U.S. Army Charles Rosemond)
The Apache has a super sensitive camera mounted under its nose and a variety of other sensors. One of the most powerful sensors is the radar mounted over the rotor blades.
These sensors and the on-board computers allow the helicopter to track up to 256 targets from up to 3 miles away. That's further away than the sound of their rotor blades carries, especially if there is vegetation or uneven ground to break up the waves. So, for many people being hunted by an Apache, the first sign of trouble is the sudden sound of high-explosive chain gun rounds landing all around them.
This sound is quickly followed by the noise of the gun firing, since the rounds leave the gun at over Mach 2 at normal temperatures. Around the same time that the sound wave comes, the rounds begin exploding. You likely won't hear anything else after that.
Unless you're in a tank! But, then you likely wouldn't hear any explosive rounds. Instead, you'd just take a Hellfire missile to the turret and be dead from the tandem warhead before you realize anything is wrong. Tandem warheads fire twice. The first explosive opens a gap in your reactive armor. The second pierces the remaining armor and sends you to your maker.
But it might hit you with rockets, shredding you with darts or destroying you with explosives and fragmentation.
So, uh, maybe don't get caught burying an IED when any of these things are around. It'll be a bad day.