Why Some Israeli AH-64 Apaches Have A Big Belly Bulge

The hard-worked Israeli Air Force AH-64 fleet is unlike any other, with major alterations and enhancements unique to the IAF.

byThomas Newdick, Tyler Rogoway|
AH-64 Israel pod
Davidi Vardi/Wikimedia Commons
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The current conflict in Gaza is once again putting Hamas militants up against the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), one of the most technologically advanced militaries on the planet. Among the signature weapons used by the IDF is the attack helicopter fleet of the Israeli Air Force. While these helicopters are highly modified to Israeli specifications, one alteration is especially interesting as it changes the iconic mold-line of the AH-64 Apache.

Photos of Israeli Air Force AH-64 Apache attack helicopters in action in and around Gaza highlight that some of them carry a prominent pod under their bellies. The pod — which can be seen mounted immediately aft of the 30mm Chain Gun — contains an additional avionics package and it helps tell a story of how the IDF ensures that its combat helicopters remain at the top of their game, despite the advancing age of some of them, in particular.

Above and below: These two pictures taken from the Israeli side of the border with the Gaza Strip on October 30, 2023, show a pod-equipped AH-64A launching infrared flares over the north of the Gaza Strip, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement. Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images
Above and below: These two pictures taken from the Israeli side of the border with the Gaza Strip on October 30, 2023, show a pod-equipped AH-64A launching infrared flares over the north of the Gaza Strip, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement. Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images
Above and below: Two photos taken from Sderot, Israel, on the Gazan border, show an AH-64A flying after Israeli attacks on Gaza, on October 30, 2023. The additional avionics pod is just visible below the fuselage. Photo by Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu via Getty Images
Photo by Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu via Getty Images

While not often seen, the existence of the under-fuselage avionics pod has been known about for some time. Back in 2013, there were reports about the pod being added as part of an upgrade, specifically for the first-generation AH-64A model, known to the IDF as the Peten — meaning python — which was first introduced as long ago as 1990. Israel also operates the second-generation AH-64D Saraf, or serpent, equivalent to the Apache Longbow, which began to arrive in 2005.

Above and below: Two better views of the pod, seen on an AH-64A over the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon during an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City, as part of an earlier operation, on August 5, 2022. Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images
Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images

As well as the mast-mounted AN/APG-78 Longbow radar, key differences in the D-model include a greater proportion of Israeli-made avionics, weapons, and self-protection features not otherwise found on the Apache. Among these are a Rafael voice communications and data suite (RAVNET 300) and Elta 1891 satellite communications (with prominent bulbous antennas carried on the outer parts of the stub wings). The locally developed mission management system is the Elbit HELICOM suite which provides a real-time overview of the battlefield. Finally, the Elisra Seraph self-protection suite includes an SPS-65 missile warning receiver and an SPJ-40 radar jammer as well as Elbit Rokar countermeasures dispensers.

An Israeli Air Force AH-64D Saraf from 113 ‘Hornet’ Squadron. IAF/Celia Garion

With the airframe of the AH-64 already being packed with avionics, not to mention fuel and ammunition, and the two-person crew, the decision was taken to add the new electronics kit in an external housing. It’s also worth noting that the ‘cheek’ fairings on the AH-64A are already considerably smaller than those on the AH-64D, further limiting the capacity for internal avionics and thus necessitating the ventral pod solution.

A head-on view of an AH-64A with the avionics pod almost obscured by the 30mm Chain Gun. IAF
A night-time view of an AH-64A with the gray-painted avionics pod fitted below the fuselage. IAF

Speaking to FlightGlobal at the time, Lt. Col. C, head of the Israeli Air Force’s Unit 22 maintenance and upgrade unit, explained that the AH-64A modernization also included the replacement of original wiring and some of the main computers.

A pod-equipped AH-64A during an airshow in Tel Aviv on April 26, 2023, marking 75 years since the establishment of the Jewish state. Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images

Details of what is actually in the external pod were not revealed at the time, although the avionics were intended to bring the earlier AH-64A more in line with the advanced AH-64D.

The Israeli Air Force did previously fully upgrade a portion — reportedly 12 — of its AH-64A fleet to AH-64D standard. But this was a complex and expensive process, involving airframes being shipped back to Boeing in the United States for rework, and the podded solution represented a much more economical way of adding capability to the attack helicopter.

Above and below: Two views of pod-equipped AH-64As taking part in a winter training exercise in Israel. IAF
IAF

Having a larger fleet of attack helicopters, even if offering different levels of capability, is a prerequisite for the IDF, with these types of aircraft having played a very prominent role in successive campaigns, ever since the first AH-1 Tzefa (viper) helicopters were introduced in 1975.

An Israeli Air Force AH-1 Tzefa, photographed in 2018. Oren Rozen/Wikimedia Commons

While the AH-1 has now been retired, the Israeli Air Force relies on a squadron each of AH-64As and AH-64Ds, both based at Ramon Air Base in the Negev desert: 113 ‘Hornet’ Squadron flies the AH-64D while 190 ‘Magic Touch’ Squadron is responsible for the AH-64A.

As well as their locally produced avionics and self-protection kit, these also carry Israeli-made weapons, including the Spike NLOS missile, which will soon be operation on U.S. Army Apaches. Known in Israeli service as the Tammuz, this electro-optically guided weapon, which can be considered a loitering munition, has a range of around 15.5 miles. Israeli AH-64s are frequently seen armed with both AGM-114 Hellfires and Spike NLOS, with the Israeli-made missile serving as a complementary weapon that offers capabilities beyond the U.S.-supplied Hellfire. In particular, the Spike NLOS boasts a guidance system with two modes of operation. One of these allows it to simply strike fixed targets at designated coordinates. The other ‘man-in-the-loop’ type, in which an operator can make fine adjustments during the terminal phase of the missile’s flight, using a video feed transmitted from an infrared camera in the weapon’s nose. A cylindrical line-of-sight datalink pod that can be attached to the Apache's stub wings (seen below) is used for this two-way control of Spike.

This AH-64D carries a single Spike missile on its right-hand outboard hardpoint. The line-of-sight antenna for the Spike is mounted on the left-hand side. IAF
Armorers load a Hellfire missile on an Israeli AH-64. Note the bulbous satellite communications antennas on top of the stub wing and the drum-shaped line-of-sight antenna for the Spike missile at the end of the stub wing. IAF

All these additions and special systems definitely add weight, which would impact the performance of the AH-64, but clearly Israel sees that as a worthwhile tradeoff considering what it gains in advanced capabilities.

As you can read about in our deep dive on IDF air defenses, Israeli AH-64s have also been employed for counter-drone operations, with the rotorcraft’s flexibility in terms of deployment and its low-speed capability making it suitable for targeting certain categories of drones. Its Hellfire missiles can be used for this role in a 'off-label' air-to-air application.

An IDF video purportedly showing an Israeli AH-64 shooting down an Iranian UAV that crossed into Israeli territory on February 10, 2018:

A kill marking for the same Iranian drone on the nose of an AH-64D. IAF

Aside from its more aggressive roles engaging targets on the ground and in the air, the Israeli AH-64 fleet, with its powerful sensors and communications systems, is also well-equipped to operate in the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) role. This use is of particular relevance when operating in close support of troops on the ground, as in Gaza, as well as patrolling Israel's long and often tense border areas.

Altogether, 48 AH-64s of both versions are understood to be in Israeli service, fewer than 20 of these being the advanced D-models.

An AH-64A carrying a full load of four Reduced Size Crashworthy External Fuel System (RCEFS) tanks. IAF

Photos from the current campaign in Gaza confirm that upgraded AH-64As remain an important part of the Israeli Air Force attack helicopter fleet, despite their years. The highly customized configurations of these aircraft, including their ventral avionics canoe solution, is a reminder of a what has become a staple practice in regards to imported military hardware — taking something that is good and making it even better or the IDF's use through deep customization using locally-developed subsystems. The IAF's fighter force is most known for this, with its F-15s and F-16s being deeply modified, a process that is still ongoing. The new F-35I Adir is carrying on the tradition as well.

Israel's Apaches are truly unlike any others on the planet, but the A models have a look all their own thanks to some extra space added via their belly avionics pods.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com

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