Weapons: Russia Plays Catchup In Mini-Missiles

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August 6, 2013: Russia has ordered over 6,000 Vikhr (9K121/AT-16) laser guided missiles. The $400 million order was, in part, to prevent the manufacturer from going bankrupt. The 45 kg (99 pound) Vikhr is similar to the American Hellfire but did not show up until 1990. Sales have been slow since then, in part because another Russian manufacturer had a similar missile (Ataka V). While Vikhr is similar in size and function to Hellfire, it uses a different (laser beam riding) laser guidance system. Vikhr has a max range of 10 kilometers and a 10 kg (22 pound) warhead. It is primarily used on Ka-50/52 helicopters and Su-25 ground attack aircraft. The older (and more numerous) Mi-24 helicopter uses the Ataka V. 

The American Hellfire II (48.2 kg/106 pounds with a 9 kg/20 pound warhead and range of 8,000 meters) has been around a decade longer than Vikhr and is widely used. Meanwhile, the market for small missiles like this has changed and there is increased demand for even smaller missiles. The most popular of these is the 13.6 kg AKWS II (Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System) which comes either as a kit, to convert unguided 70mm unguided rockets to laser guided ones, or newly manufactured AKWS II missiles. The 70mm guided rockets have been around for more than a decade, trying to get anyone to buy more than a few evaluation missiles or upgrade kits. But now this smaller, cheaper alternative to Hellfire is selling big numbers. 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 don't require a larger and more expensive (up to $150,000) Hellfire missile but still needs some targeting precision. In tests the APKWS hit within a meter (a few feet) of the aiming point. 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. 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 salvos 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.

Initially orders for 70mm guided missiles were not forthcoming because the Hellfire was doing the job and there just wasn't a big demand for a smaller missile. But now several smaller missiles have been developed, and one of them, the Griffin, is being used over Pakistan and Afghanistan on American UAVs. The smaller Griffin is an alternative because it weighs only 16 kg (35 pounds) with a 5.9 kg (13 pound) warhead. Griffin has 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.

Users believe that a mini-Hellfire, in the form of their APKWS II, has a role on the battlefield and plan to keep using it in combat. The APKWS is a lot cheaper than Hellfire or Griffin, and for many, cheaper is seen as better. Russia has been working on similar small missiles but Western, and especially American, manufacturers have a substantial lead in developing these mini-missiles and getting them into combat.  

 


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