So the Brits may have lost their ability to launch fighters from ships with the retirement of the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal but that hasn’t stopped the Royal Navy from finding a stopgap power projection system until the Queen Elizabeth class supercarriers are commissioned. Apparently, the Royal Navy and British Army have re-qualified the AH-64 Apache (known as the AH1 in the U.K.) to operate from ships.
Three Apaches were originally embarked on Ocean as part of an exercise aimed at giving the fleet some ability to project carrier-launched air power since the Ark Royal’s Harrier jump jets were retired along with the ship. Now, the Ocean is sailing off the coast of Libya with the attack helicopters on-board (pictured above).
These birds are part of the Anglo-French force of attack helos that are may-or-may not be set to strike targets belonging to Moammar Gadhafi’s government in Libya. If the Apaches join the fray, this will mark a new phase of the Libyan conflict, coming on the heels of some of the heaviest NATO air strikes yet against Gadhafi.
From Aviation Week’s Ares blog:
What started out as an exercise is now turning into something more. The British government has apparently decided to deploy the rotorcraft to Libya, to help rebels in the area of Misurata in their fight against Libyan government forces.
The move is a big escalation for the British after weeks in which sustained attacks on Libyan government positions and Col. Gadddafi’s leadership compounds failed to generate any major breakthrough.
Only three Apaches are deployed on HMS Ocean, but the government has apparently authorized at least one more to be dispatched there with two more on standby, reports the Daily Telegraph.
If deployed, the choppers would perform a similar role as the handful of U.S. drones that have been striking Gadhafi’s troops for just over a month now; loitering close to the ground in urban areas where they can easily identify and kill enemy soldiers who are deliberately hiding among civilians.
While strikes by fast jets have eliminated Gadhafi’s fleet of fixed wing aircraft and anti aircraft batteries along with seriously reducing the number of command and control bunkers, ammo dumps, artillery and armored vehicles, the regime is still holding the rebels in check by adopting assymetric tactics to hide its remaining firepower from NATO strike jets and pummel the rebels. The addition of at least three Apaches and an unknown number of French Tiger attack helos embarked on the Mistral class assault ship Tonnerre will no doubt allow NATO put even more pressure on Gadhafi’s forces that try to hide from air strikes.
The Apaches and Tigers carry more weapons (cannons, rockets and Hellfire missiles) than the drones and they put aircrew in the thick of the fight. Yes, this exposes NATO to human losses but it also allows for potentially quicker target identification and decisions on how and when to pull the trigger.