A new attack helicopter, intended to usher the Army into high-technology aviation, has broken down so often that one commander has told his superiors he would rather fly a 1960s-vintage chopper "if we went to war tomorrow."
In a recent Army gunnery exercise, all 12 of the new high-technology helicopters, the AH-64 Apache, became incapacitated at least once within five days, according to a scathing internal Army memorandum written last month and released today.
After the gunnery exercise, an aviation brigade commander wrote: "The 82nd Airborne Division and the rest of the Army deserve to have an advanced helicopter that works . . . but systems reliability is killing us."
The failures appear to be part of a larger pattern of reliability deficiencies with the aircraft, prompting Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) to call for a General Accounting Office investigation. Army officials disputed allegations that the AH-64--on which they plan eventually to spend $13.6 billion--is a lemon, and said the aircraft is meeting its reliability goals.
The helicopters, costing $13.4 million each, are produced by the McDonnell Douglas Helicopter Co. in Mesa, Ariz. The firm formerly was Hughes Helicopters of Culver City, Calif. The Army has received 450 AH-64s and, ultimately, plans to buy a total of 975.
The problems of the AH-64 call into further question a whole family of high-performance weapons purchased during the $1-trillion defense buildup during the Ronald Reagan Administration. The Air Force B-1 bomber, the Navy Aegis radar system and the Phalanx gun, among many other exotic systems, all have had major reliability problems after entering service.
"Even though we say we value reliability, we seldom choose reliability over performance when we develop weapons systems," said Thomas L. McNaugher, an expert in weapons procurement at the Brookings Institution.
"It is time we stop rushing these projects to stay ahead of the Russians. We run the risk of getting very high-performance and very unreliable weapons. We are getting into levels of sophistication that are very costly to maintain," McNaugher said.
While such concerns are often raised in academic circles, it is seldom that soldiers who actually use and depend on the weapons are heard from. Dingell's staff uncovered the memorandum and a cover letter, written by Col. R. Dennis Kerr, commander of the 82nd Aviation Brigade at Ft. Bragg, N. C.
"I have been a fan of the AH-64 for over a year, but the aircraft has let me down," Kerr wrote on Feb. 7 to Maj. Gen. Richard Stephenson, commander of the Army Aviation Systems Command in St. Louis. Stephenson's office was responsible for buying the helicopter.
"If we went to war tomorrow, I'd have to recommend taking all of our AH-1s before we outload one AH-64. We need helicopters to work for at least the first 72 hours. The Apache has a long way to go to make it to the battlefield. Please help."
Aim Was Better Performance
The AH-1 mentioned by Kerr refers to Bell Helicopters' 1960s-vintage Cobra, which has since been updated. The AH-64 was supposed to provide marked improvement in performance over the Cobra, carrying more lethal weapons and providing better flying characteristics.
The Army has invested billions of dollars in a fleet of thousands of helicopters of various types and has nearly as many aircraft as the Air Force. The strategy of relying on helicopters has long been criticized--especially so after the failure of the Iran hostage rescue mission in April, 1980. The mission was called off when three of the eight helicopters involved failed and a fourth was involved in an accident.
The AH-64, designed to attack Soviet tanks and other armored vehicles, is armed with a machine gun, small rockets and guided missiles. But the Kerr memorandum that details the gunnery exercise suggests that the AH-64 might be a sitting duck in combat.
The memorandum, written by a member of Kerr's staff, said that "significant problems were encountered involving both the airframe and armament systems." An attachment to the memo cites several dozen failures that occurred on the helicopters, including numerous instances of jamming on its 30-millimeter machine guns.
Fleet Grounded 3 Times
The Army has lost five Apaches in flight and two more that burned on the ground since the helicopter entered service in early 1984, according to Army records. The entire fleet of AH-64s has been grounded at least three times.
Army officials said Kerr's problems with his AH-64s are not representative of other Army units.
"The Apache is a fine airplane," said Col. Curtis Herrick, the AH-64 program manager in St. Louis. "We are finding that it has more capability than the designers foresaw."
Herrick said the AH-64 was "available" 75.2% of the time over the last year, which meets the Army's goal of 75%. Based on those statistics, no more than four of the 12 AH-64s should have failed in the gunnery exercises, rather than all 12.