Part One.

22 August 2021

Apache Storm

Part One

This article is based in part on Will Laidlaw’s excellent book, ‘Apaches Over Libya’, Pen and Sword Books, 2016, 2021.

Night off the coast of North Africa. A sliver of moon helps the AH-64 D Apache’s night vision system bring the darkness to light. The outline of the Royal Navy helicopter carrier HMS Ocean jumps out in ghostly shades of green and grey. One deck slot back, our wingman, Jonty H, is also ‘turning and burning.’ Armed with a max war-load of 16 AGM-114 Hellfire missiles and fuelled to the gills, both helicopter gunships are ready for action. The Apache has demonstrated its fantastic firepower, versatility and robustness on front-line operations in Afghanistan; but operating from the deck of a warship on the open sea is a whole new challenge.


No radio comms before launch. Everything is done by hand signals and with minimal use of light. Any last-minute change is communicated by paper and pencil. A quick flash of the strobe and a thumbs-up from the deck marshal. Ease the powerful Rolls Royce engines up to full power. Much of the information needed to fight and fly the Apache is projected from the helmet mounted display (HMD) onto a special lens in front of your right eye. Learn to switch instantly between this and your left, which looks out at the real world and scans the controls. Symbology looks good, script looks good: Thunderbirds are ‘Go’. Tonight, I am in the front, lower seat, working the weapons systems. Above and behind me, ‘Dags’ Dageurro is flying the bird – but our roles are interchangeable. Four quick pushes of a multi-function display (MFD) button activate the nose-mounted ‘look to shoot’ sensors. You can slave either the M230 30mm automatic chain gun to follow your eye movements, or the sights for the Hellfires or the rockets if we are carrying them. Choose, and one or other of the weapons fires where you look.


It is June 2011, and our two-ship is part of Operation Ellamy, the British contribution to a U.N.-sanctioned mission to prevent Libyan dictator Muammar Gadaffi killing civilians. Tonight’s mission is simple – and extremely dangerous. The primary target is a large building and associated structures at Okba airfield. This is a covert staging and logistics post for pro-Gaddafi (pro-Gad) forces. Okba lies approximately 70km south of the Libyan coast, right out in the desert and on one of Libya’s few metalled roads to the Nafusa Mountains. A large Free Libyan Forces (FLF) contingent is holed up in this redoubt. If we can clear their route north to Tripoli, the Nafusa mob have sworn to hit Gaddafi hard in the seat of his power.


Our secondary target is a vehicle checkpoint (VCP) on the coast road between Tripoli and Zuwara. One of many set up by the regime, the VCP is also blocking FLF movements. Certified targets of opportunity are legit under prevailing rules of engagement (ROE) Lift off and crab sideways clear of the ship. Hover for a moment and then nose down and transition into forward flight. Wind up to 140 knots. We are going in as low as we dare. First up, we need to be extremely careful of our fuel usage. The Apache has a combat range of 260 nautical miles, but for tactical reasons HMS Ocean is a good distance north of the coast. The round trip across the Med to feet dry, the attack itself and the return leg will draw every drop from the tanks bar a safety reserve. We must not get target fixation: hanging around will leave us at risk of ending up in the drink instead of recovering to Ocean. This is not a good look: helicopters sink – fast.

Flying low over Libya means multiple threats to our lives. The main one is enemy ground fire. Pro-Gad have hundreds of ‘technicals’ – flat-bed trucks and jeeps with various types of AAA mounted on them. Most of these guns are variants of the Russian-designed ZSU system. The tracked, light-armoured ZSU 23-4 ‘Shilka’ is an especially vicious, quad-barrel, 23mm nightmare pro-Gad tend to use in the anti-personnel role. What it is really best at is destroying helicopters. The system’s fast-acquisition ‘Tobol’ (NATO designation ‘Gun Dish) search radar identifies a target. The radar locks on, then the quad barrels blast out three-second bursts of about 150 rounds at the target’s predicted bearing and elevation. High-explosive/incendiary tracer shells drench the airspace out to five kilometres. If we are caught in that withering cone of fire, then even in the AH-64 D, which is armoured to withstand gunfire up to 23mm, we will most likely die.

The ZSUs are not even the greatest threat to our health and wellbeing. Pro-Gad also has a large inventory of man-portable, high-spec, heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles. These include the SA-7,14, 16, 18, and – the latest, most efficient and most dangerous MANPAD of all – the SA-24 NATO designation ‘Grinch’. This optically-guided, shoulder-fired, supersonic IR homing missile has a 2.5 kilogram HE-FRAG warhead and a range of between 500 and 6,000 metres. Night vision on the system is standard, as are anti-flare decoy countermeasures.

Then there are all the Pro-Gad foot-soldiers armed with PKM, DshK and other heavy machine guns. And AK47s. These guys lie concealed in the coastal sand dunes, waiting and watching. When the scouts see or hear us on the way in, they will a]: open fire; and b]: report our ingress point and heading to their MANPAD-equipped mates – and any nearby SAM sites. We have top cover in the form of fast movers, French Mirage 2000s in the present case, but from 25,000 feet the jets cannot see individual enemy soldiers hidden in cover. Happy days.


We are nearing the coast now. The FLIR shows a white line of breaking surf. The coastal strip contains nearly all of Libya’s infrastructure, including the next threat, forests of electricity pylons. We are below these at feet dry, we pop up to 200 feet to avoid the first line of wires. Over them and back down on the deck. The Target Acquisition and Designation Sights/ Passive Night Vision System (TADS/PNVS) brings the landscape to vivid life. I arm the countermeasures to decoy incoming missiles and radars. Set the multi-flare dispenser to automatic.

Pro-Gad forces are getting smarter at setting SAMbushes - hiding launchers in copses, or masking terrain. Flick the left MPD to the situational display. A thin green line now stretches from the Apache icon at the bottom of the screen to the target. The text tells me distance and time to run. Our Radar Frequency Interferometer searches passively for enemy radars, anything unwise enough to transmit will become a target.


Nineteen minutes, 65 klicks. There’s a brilliant flash of light from the ground to my right. A rocket plume is streaking towards us. The soothing Southern U.S. voice of ‘the American lady in the wing’ warning system intones: ‘Missile launch, four o’ clock. Missile launch, four o’clock.’ Dags shouts: ‘Flares! Flares! Flares! Missile seen!’ He chucks the cyclic forwards and sideways. The SA-24 is streaking up at us in a beautiful deadly arc. Our flares pop and explode out to either side in blinding showers. The calm American voice warns: ‘Altitude! Altitude.’ We switch her off and reset the warning height to 25 feet. We are below 60 feet and still descending. Banking hard.

The missile is still incoming – its clever IR head can still see us hiding behind the flares. My heart hammers and my blood pumps at max thrust and speed. Dry mouth and prickling fear. The countermeasures are not working. Fifty feet, forty feet, thirty, twenty-five. ‘Altitude! Altitude!’ Shit! We are going to die. A final blossoming of flares and the missile lock breaks. At the last possible moment, the SA-24 swerves, passes so close we actually see its slim white body streak by, shoots up into the sky and explodes.


We turn back up and round to find the insurgent who fired it. The FLIR picks him out, he is trying to bury the MANPAD in the sand, then pretend he is just doing a spot of sunbathing in the dunes – only in the dead of night. I action the Hellfires. With a squeeze of the right-hand trigger, I activate the laser and move the crosshairs with my thumb to place them smack on our hostile friend. No, why waste an expensive missile? Let’s use the gun. It clunks into readiness. My left forefinger pushes up the trigger guard, it feels as heavy as hell, must be the adrenalin. Our quarry is running awkwardly through the dunes, the sand slows him down. I give the trigger a brief squeeze. Travelling at 2,642 feet per second, each 30mm round explodes with the force and lethal power of a super-high-speed hand grenade. The first burst knocks him down. He is not getting back up.

We slew back onto our attack heading. The desert racing by below is empty now – for the next few minutes all is quiet. The Apache’s AN/APG-78 Longbow radar and sensor suite can detect and track up to 128 targets simultaneously and engage up to 16 at once. The system’s raised position above the rotor hub allows the gunship to do this while remaining in cover behind buildings, trees, terrain and other things. Once the target is acquired, it takes less than 30 seconds to initiate an attack. If there are more targets than a single AH-64 D can handle, the Longbow’s integrated radio modem allows it to stream targeting information to friendly air and ground units.

Combined Arms

We have no Pred (Predator surveillance and targeting drone) assisting us tonight, we’ve been busy of late, the operators at Creech AFB in Nevada must be having a well-deserved rest. Our wingman is about 1,000 metres away - out on our left quarter: Apaches like to hunt in pairs. One engages targets while the other sits off, assists in identifying them, and watches for enemy threats. Fourteen klicks to go. I slave the FLIR to the target coordinates and zoom in. One large block and a cluster of smaller buildings on the edge of the airfield, exactly as they looked in the briefing. Several trucks and technicals parked around them, a few warm bodies carrying AK-47s showing white against the dark. In my ear, Jonty the Wingman confirms the target.


I place the laser crosshairs on the middle of the main building. ‘Target is good. Some activity, but armed, not civilian. ROE satisfied.’ The weapons page tells me the Hellfires are ready. The one selected has locked onto the target. I lift the heavy guard again. Rest a forefinger on the trigger. ‘Three, two, one – firing.’ A heartbeat and the missile shoots off the rail, leaving a comet-trail of brilliant orange light. It climbs a little, the seeker head acquires my reflected laser energy and it arrows straight at the target. ‘Blam! Twenty-five lbs of warhead blow a hole in the block, then explode inside. I fire a second and a third AGM, it’s a pretty big block. Switch point of aim and launch two more Hellfires into the nearest structures. The strike has created panic and mayhem. There are men rushing out of all the buildings, climbing into vehicles, diving headlong into what looks like a drainage culvert and running away to all sides. Long flickering trails of orange tracer snake skywards here and there, some of the braver souls are firing back. Looks like small arms, that is unlikely to damage us. A massive secondary explosion from inside the main block blows a large chunk of its roof clean off. The explosive flash is so great that for a moment, we are blinded. The blast wave buffets the Apache. Pro-Gad were storing one hell of a lot of ammunition in there. Job done on this target, time to move. I give the largest of the parked vehicles a parting Hellfire, then we bank, dip our nose and head north by northwest for the coast. Now for the VCP.

Thank you for your passion and support,

Eagle Dynamics Team