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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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