An Apache assault helicopter flies past Taiwanese flags. Photo: AFP
An Apache assault helicopter flies past Taiwanese flags. Photo: AFP

The Taiwanese Air Force is set to inaugurate its first air brigade fully equipped with US Apache helicopters. A ceremony next week to be attended by President Tsai Ing-wen will showcase a platoon of the twin-turboshaft assault helicopters.

The army’s 601st Air Cavalry Brigade will operate 29 Apache helicopters bought from Boeing’s defense division at an undisclosed lump sum, which was part of a large arms deal approved in 2011 by the Obama administration that infuriated Beijing.

The 601st brigade is responsible for the defense of Taipei and the rest of northern Taiwan. It has two combat squadrons that provide air support alongside armor, artillery, special forces and infantry units.

The Apache helicopter is a powerful weapons platform armed with a 30mm chain gun and a mixture of anti-tank missiles, Hydra rockets or Stinger air-to-air missiles. It can simultaneously track up to 128 targets and engage 16 of them, making it more lethal and likely to survive in air warfare.

The Apache E variant has the Longbow fire-control radar on top of the rotor mast, which provides all-weather, 360-degree search capabilities for air and ground target acquisition, as well as night vision systems. The type that Taiwan bought can also control unmanned aerial vehicles or drones.

Officials with Taiwan’s defense ministry told the island’s Central News Agency that in addition to Boeing representatives, several officers from the US Air Force’s 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, the Taiwanese brigade’s sister unit, would also attend the ceremony.

A file photo shows former Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou attending an acceptance ceremony for Apache helicopters at the Kuijen Airbase in Tainan County, in December 2013. Photo: Central News Agency

Taiwan reached an agreement with the Pentagon to purchase 30 Apache helicopters with weapons and associated equipment in June 2011, and the first batch of six was delivered in November 2013.

Yet within six months, in April 2014, Taiwan lost one of the brand-new Apaches after one crashed head-on into a three-story building during a training flight in poor weather. It was the first loss of this type worldwide.

A subsequent investigation ruled out mechanical failure and blamed pilots for descending too fast through clouds at low altitude without checking flight panels to maintain adequate height.

The fifth and final batch was delivered in October 2014, completing the order.

The Taiwanese Air Force also maintains a fleet of older Cobra attack helicopters and has been actively honing skills of its pilots to steer 60 Black Hawks procured from Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., a Lockheed Martin subsidiary. Black Hawks are touted as vital contingency choppers, versatile in both electronic warfare and special operations such as airborne command.