A greenhorn rides with `Apaches'

AS night falls the Stygians are advancing, intent on capturing Waco, the garden paradise of central Texas. They must be stopped. We, the Apache helicopter crewmen of A troop, 7th Squadron, 17th United States Army Cavalry, are the men for the job. At least we might be if I, a novice gunner, can figure out these buttons in the cockpit.

From my seat low in the helicopter nose I dimly see fellow Apaches rising from the field. They look like giant ants angrily waving their feelers. Suddenly we too spring from the ground into the prairie night. I look again at the inexplicable switches in front of me and know that if Waco is depending on me it is doomed.

This is, of course, an exercise. I have traveled south of nowhere to this giant base to see how the US Army plans to use its new equipment, and the experience has become more firsthand than bargained for.

The two-man AH-64 Apache is the Army's newest operational weapon. Only Fort Hood has it in significant numbers -- 30. Outfitted with armor-busting Hellfire missiles and expensive night-fighting electronics, these helicopters live to fight tanks. If the awful day of a Soviet invasion of Europe arrives, NATO's fortunes may well hinge on Apaches neutralizing the vast armored columns of the Warsaw Pact.

I joined this particular Apache exercise in early evening. In a camouflaged tent in a grove in the Fort Hood outback, the base air cavalry commander, Col. Walter Yates, was briefing his pilots on the Stygian drive against Aqualonia and its ally, the United States. ``As you can see men, we've given up quite a bit of ground,'' he said. He pointed at his map and looked grave.

The Stygians seemed to be an enemy all the more crafty for being imaginary, the product of an intelligence officer's imagination. Three days before this one, they had rolled out of the south Texas Stygian homeland into Aqualonia, with Waco their goal.

The analogy was clearly to a Soviet invasion of West Germany. The unit commander, Lt. Col. Kenneth McGinty, a man with the drawled humor of an airline pilot, smiled a large smile and called the Stygians ``that godless commie horde.'' The Aqualones, he insisted ``are a peace-loving, Christian faction.''

The mission of the 7/17th's Apaches for tonight: keep a Stygian armored column from sneaking across an open patch of ground named Antelope Mound. The part of the Stygians would be played by US M-1 tanks. The tank crews, who do not share the air cavalry's belief in the primacy of the helicopter in Army doctrine, were expected to be enthusiastic in their evasive maneuvers.

At the conclusion of the briefing we were served dinner, a vaguely Italian something that, to be fair, was superior to leftover night at my old summer camp. We then dispersed to the choppers, which began lifting off to travel to holding meadows. My pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Bill Tucker, tried to teach me the 16-week-long gunner/navigator's course in 40 minutes.

In the Apache the gunner rides in front of, and slightly below, the pilot. On strapping in, I wondered why there was a TV screen in front of my face and how anyone could use all those dials and switches.

The theory goes like this: Apaches ride to battle at treetop level in the dark, guided by a picture on the video screen provided by night-vision infrared sensors mounted on the helicopter's nose. Nearing the battlefield, the pilot pops up for a better look around. The gunner picks up particular targets up to eight kilometers (five miles) away, and zaps them with guided missiles before they know what's happening.

Of all the technology involved here, I found my helmet the most futuristic. It had a monocle that displayed the same picture being shown on the larger screen. It aimed the helicopter's weapons wherever I happened to look. It cost, I was told, $16,000.

And that was the sum of my initiation into the US air cavalry. After hurrying to our forward hiding place and then waiting for several hours, we are now suddenly airborne, and I haven't the faintest idea what's going on.

To begin with, the picture on my night-vision screen bears little resemblance to an actual landscape. It looks instead like a close-up shot of raw, uncarded cotton. Part of the problem is that it takes training to recognize what you're looking at; part of it is that the infrared sensors aren't quite kicking in properly.

Also, a gyro that is supposed to stabilize the helicopter won't start, and so we are bouncing around like a Honda Civic whomping through a cornfield. The Doppler navigational radar isn't working, either. But we are still capable of fighting. We are better off than A Troop's captain, whose electronics have all gone dead and who has to turn on his lights and fly ignominiously away.

Try as I might, I can't detect the telltale bright white blip of an M-1, whose hot-running turbine engine shows up well on an infrared screen, which is another story. So Mr. Tucker fires off an electronic ``missile'' at a target spotted by his wing copter and we duck back to refuel.

By the time we get back to the fight it's over. What's left of the Stygian column is dug in behind brush on the other side of Antelope Mound. After hours of preparation the whole exercise was over in only a few minutes.

We make a few strafing runs at a platoon of Stygian infantry that has the 7/17th command post under fire, then land for debriefing. The evening has apparently been a success. On a portable VCR we watch ``movies,'' an infrared videotape taken by a pilot who had a particularly good run. On it the tanks show up as clearly as day, from a distance of eight kilometers. The final toll for the unit: 60 Stygian tanks, 30 armored personnel carriers, two mobile antiaircraft batteries, and one snake. This last casualty wandered into the headquarters tent and was clubbed to death by a sentry's rifle.

Bill Tucker and his fellow pilots believe that the attack helicopter, acting as a flying tank, would be the dominant weapon of a land war in Europe. Helicopters can move faster and hit from farther away than the most advanced fighting vehicle, air cavalry pilots point out.

The Apache's record on this night seems to bear this opinion out. But in a real fight, artillery would have been bombarding their forward hiding places. They would have faced stiffer antiaircraft fire from the ground. Perhaps most important, they would have had to contend with an enemy air force -- marauding fighter planes and attack helicopters searching for them.

At $13 million each, Apaches are not cheap, but the Army plans to buy 675 of them. The 7/17th is certainly convinced of their worth.

``The next step is air-to-air helicopter dogfights,'' insists the A Troop, commander Capt. William Jernigan. ``The attack helicopter combined with armor means a revolution in the way ground forces would fight.''

Monitor writer Peter Grier recently spent a month visiting US military installations, where he accompanied soldiers, sailors, and fliers as they trained. This is the first in a seven-part series. Tomorrow: Driving the Bradley Fighting Vehicle and M-1 tank.

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