Laser-Guided Rockets Gain Popularity

By David Hambling London and Bill Sweetman Washington, David Hambling
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology
July 08, 2013
Credit: Jim Hodgson

The steady progress of smart rockets continues as area-fire 70-mm unguided rockets are upgraded into precision, laser-guided weapons that are a fraction of the cost and weight of existing missiles such as the Hellfire.

The laser-guided rocket (LGR) fills a gap between guns and other missiles. It is not expensive, because large stocks of 70-mm rockets exist and all LGR designs envision using existing tubes and warheads. The LGR needs little or no integration—all designs are intended to use existing launchers, and the laser-guidance packages require no special wiring, because the missile is fired in the normal way and immediately acquires the laser spot. Finally, rapid progress in electro-optical (EO) targeting systems means that even small and inexpensive EO turrets incorporate laser designation.

The guided rocket is considered an essential weapon for a number of new airborne platforms, particularly those based on commercial aircraft or older military platforms. The Iomax Archangel, unveiled at the Paris air show in June, is a good example. Developed for border patrol, it is based on a Thrust 710P crop-duster airframe, with underwing weapon pylons and an L-3 Wescam MX-15Di multi-sensor turret forward of the landing gear. It has glass cockpit displays and a mission computer supplied by CMC Electronics. The L-3 turret includes a laser designator, so integrating rockets is easy.

The U.S. Navy is working with a larger and more powerful platform in the shape of the Boeing (originally North American) OV-10G+, two of which are being evaluated at NAS Fallon, Nev., and other western ranges under the Combat Dragon II program. The original Combat Dragon was based around the A-29B Super Tucano, with the goal of getting a few aircraft into Afghanistan to support special operations and U.S. Marine units, but in the second phase of the program—according to Jim Hodgson, a retired OV-10 pilot who was a consultant for the effort—the Navy decided to look at the OV-10 because of its greater size and payload and helicopter-like forward and downward view.

The OV-10s used in the program have been fitted with new sensor/designator turrets and large-screen front and rear cockpit displays. LGRs are an important part of the concept. One of the OV-10's inherent weaknesses is its fixed armament of four 7.62-mm machine guns—“not much use to anyone or anything,” Hodgson comments—and the turreted 20-mm Gatling gun fitted to the OV-10D variant is heavy and complex.

Whether the program will continue remains to be seen. The OV-10 is still in service with some U.S. allies (including Colombia and the Philippines), but many airframes have been scrapped or reached the end of their useful lives.

BAE Systems' Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS) II, is already in service with the U.S. Marine Corps, and has been used from Marine AH-1W helicopters in Afghanistan since 2012. More than 100 have been fired, and it is reported to have performed well. Now the rocket is being validated on fast jets. The test-firing was from an A-10 Warthog at Eglin AFB, Fla., and according to project manager Joe Stromsness, “impacted only inches away from its intended target.”

Firings were carried out between 10,000 and 15,000 ft. and into a 70-kt. headwind. They will be followed by a series of tests from A-10s and F-16s this summer, and there are plans for firings from Navy AV-8B Harriers. If successful, the APKWS could be used operationally on fast jets in 2015.

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