Air Weapons: And Then There Were Three


May 12,2008: Suddenly, there are three different manufacturers offering their own designs for a 70mm laser guided missile. The latest is a joint effort between Raytheon and the United Arab Emirates. Late last year, Lockheed-Martin rolled out DAGR. But the oddest of them all is APKWS (Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System), which is in the process of being brought back from the dead.

A year ago, the U.S. Congress killed the APKWS 70mm missile. This project was, well, put to sleep. Its funding has been zeroed out in last year's U.S. defense budget, and the developer (BAE, General Dynamics, and Northrop Grumman) was led to believe that APKWS was dead. The main reason is that there are already lots of other good guided missile designs already out there (44 pound Viper Strike, hundred pound Hellfire and 600 pound Maverick), and that APKWS simply isn't needed, especially since this system has a decade of test failures and missed deadlines to show for all the money thrown at it.

The APKWS, and the other 70mm weapons, are 25 pound rockets, with a laser seeker and a six pound warhead. APKWS has a range of about six kilometers. The 2005 tests had one APKWS hit a stationary target 1.5 kilometers distant, while a second rocket hit a moving target 3.3 kilometers away. Laser designators on the helicopter, or with troops on the ground, is pointed at the target, and the laser seeker in the front of the APKWS homes on the reflected laser light. DAGR and the Raytheon/UAE weapon are very similar.

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 also developed such a weapon (the R4M), but before long the Allies noted that neither the Japanese nor the Germans had any heavy bombers, and their 70mm weapon was switched to air-to-ground use. 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 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 were many variations in terms of warheads and rocket motors. Some versions can go over 10 kilometers.

Developing the APKWS 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 army could afford. The price of the APKWS was supposed to get down to $20,000 each (about the cost of a smart bomb), but the manufacturers had problems doing that. As a result, Congress eventually lost patience. But some members of Congress did not lose faith, and are now working to revive APKWS. The other two weapons benefitted from the errors made with APKWS.


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