Guided rockets have already given U.S. helicopter crews a low-cost, precision-guided missile capability in Afghanistan, but could they be about to transform close air support from fast jets, too?
That is the hope of, which has in recent weeks, in conjunction with the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy's Air Systems Command, fired the first Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System II (APKWS-II) laser-guided rockets from the A-10 Thunderbolt II and AV-8B Harrier as part of a series of joint trials. Further tests in the coming weeks will see the weapon launched from the Fighting Falcon, while trials from the may come later.
The weapon, designated WGU-59B, is in service with attack-helicopter units in Afghanistan, where more than 100 of the rockets have been used on insurgent targets. The APKWS-II reduces the Marines' need to engage with larger, more expensive weapons such as the AGM-114 Hellfire.
BAE Systems says that using the laser-guided rocket on fast jets could give aircraft in the close-air support mission a greater combat persistence and the ability to eliminate targets for which there is a high risk of collateral damage. This means it could fill a critical gap between the aircraft's gun and weapons such as the AGM-65 Maverick and guided bombs that might be considered too big or expensive to use against some targets.
The premise is straightforward. BAE Systems has taken a 2.75-in. unguided rocket, unscrewed the front end and attached a guidance system. Once fired, four spring-loaded vanes open, revealing the laser seekers, which then look for the splash of a laser on the target. The weapon can potentially be fired from any helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft capable of launching 2.75-in. rockets.
“There was a lot of excitement about these tests,” says David Harrold, director of precision guidance solutions at BAE Systems. “This is a capability the Air Force and the Navy simply don't have in the inventory at the moment.”
Until now, the weapon has been fired only from helicopters and the AT-6 Texan II, so BAE Systems modified the guidance package, including changes to the seals that protect the spring-loaded vanes to ensure they are not damaged at the higher speeds and altitudes reached by fast jets.
Potential damage is also being mitigated through the use of seven-tube pods. In the A-10 trials, one rocket was fired from each tube at 10,000 ft. and then at 15,000 ft. One of the weapons was even fired into 70-kt. crosswinds, and although it missed its target by just inches, it was well within the parameters set by the testing agencies.
The A-10 tests were conducted under a Joint Capabilities Technology Demonstration at Eglin AFB, Fla., at the end of February and will be followed by further performance tests, known as Military User Assessments, in the first week of May. Trials will move to the test range at China Lake, Calif, where Air Force pilots will fire another 22 APKWS-IIs from the A-10 and F-16 at both moving and stationary targets.
“In improving rocket accuracy by several orders of magnitude, the APKWS makes the rocket a better weapon for today's low-intensity conflicts, where minimizing collateral damage is a top priority,” says Maj. Travis Burton, the 40th Flight Test Sqdn. pilot who performed the APKWS test flights on the A-10.
BAE Systems is working to decrease the guidance-package cost, now $28,000, but the Navy announced early this month that it is looking to order up to 7,000 in the coming weeks. The manufacturer is in full-rate production and has built more than 1,500 of the kits. Harrold says production levels could be boosted still further, should the capability be adopted for use on other platforms beyond the Marine Corps'Venoms and AH-1W Cobras.
Harrold hopes the Air Force and Navy interest will prompt inquiries from potential foreign military sales customers—and spike interest in the APKWS-II from the U.S. Army as an armament option for its AH-64 Apaches and OH-58 Kiowa Warriors. Trials with the weapon on both helicopters are planned for the summer.
Several laser-guided rocket solutions have been developed in recent years, but so far only APKWS-II has made it into operational service. However, Turkey's Roketsan-built Cirit system has been adopted by the United Arab Emirates for use on its Air Tractor counterinsurgency aircraft and will enter service on Turkey'sATAK helicopters this year.