London (CNN) -- Britain's Prince Harry is now qualified to fly an Apache Attack helicopter in combat, after 18 months of intensive training that included a stint flying above the deserts of California and Arizona, palace and defense officials said.
He was also awarded a prize Wednesday as the best co-pilot gunner in his peer group, the Ministry of Defence said -- one of only two prizes given on the course.
The qualification means Prince Harry, who is third in line to the British throne, could be deployed on operations once he has gained more flying experience.
Col. Neale Moss, commander of the Attack Helicopter Force at Wattisham Station, said the prince and more than 20 fellow students were now "up to the challenge of operating one of the most sophisticated attack helicopters in the world."
The students had to prove they could handle the aircraft in the desert and mountain conditions of Arizona and California, as well as firing its weapons systems in mock combat scenarios.
"The Apache course is extremely challenging teaching and testing students in their flying skills, decision making and mental agility on exercise all over the country and abroad," Moss said.
"They are assessed continually to ensure that they are up to the challenge of operating one of the most sophisticated attack helicopters in the world. This requires composure, dedication and hard work."
Prince Harry, known as Capt. Wales within the military, will now be assigned to a squadron within 16 Air Assault Brigade, defense officials said, where he will broaden his experience flying Apaches and take part in U.K.-based exercises.
The British Army's Apache helicopter is designed to hunt and destroy armored vehicles and can operate in all weathers, day or night, defense officials say.
It has been widely used in operations in Afghanistan and carries weapons including rockets and Hellfire missiles.
Prince Harry -- the younger son of Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, and the late Princess Diana -- served on the front line in Afghanistan as a forward air controller and saw combat. But he was withdrawn in February 2008 after news of his deployment broke.
His older brother, Prince William, has been deployed to the Falkland Islands in his role as a Royal Air Force search and rescue pilot. As second in line to the throne, he is specifically barred from combat.
CNN's Max Foster contributed to this report.