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Rogue Marines Adopt Cheap And Precise Solution
by James Dunnigan
September 29, 2010

The U.S. Marine Corps is buying some AKWS II (Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System) kits, to convert some of the 100,000 70mm unguided rockets to laser guided ones. The marines will use the guided 70mm rockets on their AH-1W helicopter gunships. If the guided rockets prove successful, more kits may be purchased, This would be the first real sale for 70mm guided rockets. Earlier this year, the U.S. Navy is bought fifty APKWS II (Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System) 70mm missiles (not just kits), to test on Marine Corps AV-8 (Harrier) vertical takeoff aircraft, and U.S. Air Force A-10 (Warthog) ground attack aircraft. The AV-8 has previously used unguided 70mm rockets, but the A-10 has not. The tests were successful, but did not result in any additional sales.

After more than a decade of development effort, by several different companies, there now several guided versions of the 70mm air-to-ground rocket. Developing a guided 70mm rocket took so long because the manufacturers underestimated the technical difficulties of getting the laser seeker and flight control mechanisms into that small a package, at a weight and price the customer could afford. The price of the new DAGR 70mm missile is about $20,000 each (typical for these weapons and about a third less than a smart bomb, and much less than a Hellfire missile). The developer of the competing APKWS, BAE, believed it was close to perfecting APKWS, but Congress ran out of patience and money for it three years ago. The marines took over APKWS development, completed it and got the navy to try it out.

The guided 70mm rocker is to be used against targets that don't require a larger (49 kg/108 pound), and more expensive (over $100,000) Hellfire missile, but still need some targeting precision. In tests, the APKWS hit within a meter (a few feet) of the aiming point, and the other 70mm missiles are just as accurate. The 70mm missile makes an excellent weapon for UAVs, especially since you can carry more of them. The launcher for these missiles is built to replace the one for Hellfire, but carry four missiles.

Another 70mm missile, Lockheed-Martin, completed twelve out of twelve successful tests of their DAGR 70mm guided rocket. DAGR was declared ready for service in 2008, but the U.S. Department of Defense didn't respond with any orders. The DAGR would appear to be an ideal weapon, as it also uses the Hellfire fire control system. Lockheed-Martin developed DAGR with their own money. All these 70mm rockets are basically 13.6 kg/30 pound 70mm rockets, with a laser seeker, a 2.7 kg/six pound warhead and a range of about six kilometers. Laser designators on a helicopter, or with troops on the ground, are pointed at the target, and the laser seeker in the front of the DAGR homes on the reflected laser light.

The 2.75 inch (70mm) rockets were developed during World War II as an air-to-air weapon for use against heavy bomber formations. The Germans had developed a similar, and very successful weapon (the R4M), but before long it was noted that neither the Japanese nor the Germans had any heavy bombers, so the U.S. 70mm rocket was switched to air-to-ground use. Actually, the 70mm rocket was retained for air-to-air use into the 1950s, but it was never successful in that role. The 70mm rocket became very popular in the 1960s, when it was discovered that the weapon worked very well when launched from multiple (7 or 19 tube) launchers mounted on helicopters. The 108-138m cm (42-55 inch) long rockets could be fired singly or in salvoes, and gave helicopter pilots some airborne artillery for supporting troops on the ground. There are many variations in terms of warheads and rocket motors. Some versions can go over 10 kilometers.

Apparently the orders for 70mm guided missiles have not been forthcoming because the Hellfire is doing the job and there just isn't a big demand for a smaller missile. Several smaller missiles have been developed, and one of them, the Griffin, is being used in Pakistan. The smaller Griffin is an alternative to the Hellfire II (48.2 kg/106 pounds with a 9 kg/20 pound warhead and range of 8,000 meters) because it weighs only 16 kg (35 pounds), with a 5.9 kg (13 pound) warhead. Griffin has a pop-out wings, allowing it to glide, and thus has a longer range (15 kilometers) than Hellfire. UAVs can carry more of the smaller missiles, typically two of them in place of one Hellfire. 

The marines believe that a mini-Hellfire, in the form of their APKWS II, has a role on the battlefield, and plan to use it in combat. The APKWS is a lot cheaper than Hellfire or Griffin, and for the marines, cheaper is seen as better.

 


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