The commander of the first U.S. Army unit to fly combat missions in Afghanistan with the AH-64E Apache -- the service's newest version of the attack helicopter -- praised the performance of the aircraft.

Lt. Col. John Davis, commander of the 1st Battalion, 229th Aviation Regiment, part of the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade at Joint Base Lewis McCord in Washington, said his unit operated in southern and western Afghanistan last year with two dozen Echo models of the Boeing-made choppers, along with 15 OH-58D Kiowa Warriors and 10 UH-60M Black Hawks.

The AH-64E features digital cockpit avionics, more powerful engines and composite rotor blades, among other features that improve the aircraft's range and loitering ability, Davis said. Taken together, the helicopters flew almost 11,000 hours over a seven-month tour in Kandahar and other areas in Regional Command-South, Southwest and West, he said.

"Short deployment? Yes, but nobody told the enemy that because the ops tempo was very, very high," Davis said on Wednesday during a briefing with reporters at Boeing's new office complex in Arlington, Virginia, just across the street from the Pentagon.

The D-model of the Apache was named the Longbow. The E-model received the moniker of Guardian.

The unit headed overseas with only about 270 troops, just over half of its preferred level of personnel, yet was able to maintain the Apaches with a readiness rate of 87 percent, higher than the Army standard of 80 percent, Davis said. The figure refers to the amount of time a piece of equipment can carry out missions, known in military parlance as being fully mission capable (FMC).

The E-model flew in Afghanistan at speeds of about 155 knots, or almost 180 miles per hour, while he himself only flew the D variant in Iraq at speeds of about 125 knots, or nearly 140 miles per hour, Davis said.

The faster speeds cut the amount of time it took aviators to reach front-line troops by 57 percent, Davis said. What's more, the improved fuel efficiency helped pilots pin down enemies by loitering in the area for longer periods of time, he said. The characteristics were particularly useful at a time when the U.S. military was consolidating and closing bases, he said.

"There's no place to get gas out there anymore, so what did you need?" Davis said. "You needed something that had fuel economy. You needed something that could get there fast and stay there. That's what the Echo brought. We were able to change some of the ways we did business. I didn't have a ground launch reaction force; I put them in the air."

He added, "The enemy knew what the [tactics, techniques and procedures] were for the D model. They knew where it came from when it got gas, when it showed up on station. They knew roughly how much time it's got to get gas again. Then all of a sudden an E shows up and the E doesn't have to get gas at the same time. Now, the enemy on the ground is literally going, 'I can't move.'"

The Echo model also worked well with a number of drones, including the Army's own medium-altitude MQ-1C Gray Eagle made by General Atomics and lower-altitude systems such as the ScanEagle RQ-7 Shadow, as well as the Air Force's medium-altitude MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones, Davis said. Some 60 percent of the unit's direct-fire engagements took place in conjunction with unmanned systems, he said.

"It wasn't them always finding a target, it was them maintaining positive ID of a target," Davis said, referring to drones. "They can stay up a lot longer than we can, so if they've been developing situation for a while, then it's easier for us and easier for a commander to utilize his limited assets like an Echo model, to say, 'OK, you've developed it, the target's good, send the Echo in now.' He executes his mission, services the target, and then returns and goes another priority mission."

He added, "Having an unmanned system that could get up a lot higher and still have those capabilities that it brings to the fight ... and allowing us to have the standoff where we're not seen and heard -- there's a lot to be said for that."

There were some shortcomings, however, with pairing the AH-64E and drones, Davis acknowledged. The new helicopter couldn't receive live video feeds from the Shadow because the former uses a secure communications system called the tactical common data link on a Ku frequency while the latter use an older system on the C, L and S bands, he said.

"We couldn't see everybody else's video, so you go old school: You talk to the guy -- you talk to boots on the ground," Davis said, noting that the aircraft could still receive video from the Gray Eagle. "Actually, the E is ahead of its time when it comes to having the tactical common data link. Everybody at one point will be at that band on their systems. We're just ahead of it."

Still, the Army is talking to Boeing about adding the other frequencies to the E model's data system because the rest of the joint environment and everybody else hasn't caught up to TCDL yet."

-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com