April 15, 2013
Credit: BAE Systems
Guided rockets have already given U.S. Marine Corps 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 BAE Systems, 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 F-16 Fighting Falcon, while trials from the F/A-18 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.