Air Weapons: Iraq Goes For The Little (70mm) Wonder

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December 5, 2014: Iraq has ordered 2,000 70mm APKWS II (Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System) laser guided missiles for use on its helicopters and light aircraft equipped to handle these weapons. Interestingly Iraq selected the U.S. APKWS when nearby UAE produces a similar (Talon), locally developed 70mm missiles that it uses on its own helicopters. The APKWS has two big advantages as far as Iraqis are concerned. First, it is American, which makes it the more likely to be reliable and effective. Second it has been used by the U.S. Marine Corps which began buying AKWS upgrade kits in 2010. These were used to convert some of the 100,000 70mm unguided rockets to laser guided ones. In 2013 the marines made their third purchase, for over 20,000 newly manufactured APKWS II missiles. This was the first large purchase of 70mm guided missiles, after a decade of sales efforts by several manufacturers. The marines arm their AH-1W helicopter gunships with the guided 70mm rockets and in 2012 marine AH-1Ws have fired several hundred APKWS II in Afghanistan and very few of them missed. For the Iraqis this is a major reason to buy the American.

The September 11, 2001 terror attacks sparked several new weapons development efforts and the laser guided 70mm missile was one of the more popular ones. There are now several versions available in air-to-surface and surface-to-surface versions. 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 70mm missile is about $30,000 each. This is typical for these weapons and about a third less than a smart bomb and less than a third of what a Hellfire missile costs.

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

All these 70mm guided 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 when fired from the air. 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 missile homes in 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). 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 was doing the job and there just wasn't a big demand for a smaller missile. Several smaller missiles have been developed, and one of them, the Griffin, was used over Pakistan and Afghanistan on American UAV as well as fixed wing gunships (like the AC-130). The smaller Griffin is an alternative to the Hellfire II 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 (8,000 meters). UAVs can carry more of the smaller missiles, typically two of them in place of one Hellfire. Guided 70mm rockets have an edge over Griffin because the 70mm weapon is much faster getting to the target.

Over the last two decades several firms have figured out how to turn 70mm (2.75 inch) unguided rockets into laser guided missiles. Most were designed to use existing the Hellfire missile fire control system. Getting financing for all these development projects has been difficult. Most governments are not interested. One of the U.S. efforts, by Raytheon, was actually financed by the UAE, and the resulting weapon, Talon was ready for sale in 2010 and configured for use by UAE AH-64 helicopter gunships. The only customer has been the UAE, for its own AH-64s.

 

 


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