This article first appeared in Aerospace Daily & Defense Report.
Since its March introduction to combat in Afghanistan, about 100 of the U.S. Navy/Marine Corps' new, low-cost precision air-launched missiles have been launched from AH-1W Cobra and UH-1Y transport helicopters against vehicles and troops.
The Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System (APKWS) is a BAE Systems-built, 2.75-in. rocket costing about one-quarter to one-third of other air-to-ground precision missiles. The helicopters that carry the new missiles operate out of Camp Bastion and a series of forward operating bases. The initial tranche of weapons used in Afghanistan have scored better than a 90% probability of success, say U.S. officials.
Gun camera video "footage shows good effects, no weapons failures and very few misses," says John Watkins, BAE Systems director of precision guidance solutions. Some misses were made on purpose to ensure aircrews stayed within the rules of engagement for validating targets. The others were caused by not being able to hold the laser on target, a difficult problem when both the launch aircraft and vehicular target are moving.
The missile's real value has been hitting ground troops hiding behind walls and berms in ambush sites, clusters of fighters emplacing bombs in roads and other locations or manning emplacements for mortars and heavy machine guns. Another 50 of the missiles have been fired in ongoing Fleet Marine Force training programs at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., and the Air-Ground Training Center at Twenty-Nine Palms, Calif.
Meanwhile, the Navy has tested the missile by firing it from H-60S/Rs as a flexible, fast-response defense again maritime targets, in particular small, high-speed boats that have been used as remotely controlled or suicide weapons against U.S. ships, says the Navy's program manager, Capt. Brian Corey. A decision on whether to proceed is expected in mid fiscal 2014.
APKWS was first tested in a maritime environment in January, when 10 missiles were fired at small, high-speed boats. Two types of warheads were tested — high explosive and flechette.
The Marine Corps and Air Force also are now moving ahead with a joint test demonstration that puts a very slightly modified version of the missile—whose wings can be opened reliably and quickly at speeds over Mach 2—on the AV-8B Harrier and A-10, Corey says. The modifications involve an explosive charge to make the conformal wings deploy with more force, Watkins says. A special, BAE-developed seal keeps the missile components from being damaged by hot gases being expelled at more than 1,000F. while staying frangible enough to let the wings deploy quickly.
A helicopter fires at speeds from a hover to 150 kt. The AV-8 and A-10 release their weapons at speeds of 400 kt. or more. The wings deploy about 1 sec. after the rocket motor fires. The missile reaches a speed of Mach 2 shortly after launch.
The Navy is working out how many missiles can be carried by the various platforms. Current packages can put 16-38 missiles on a helicopter, for example, or from 16-19 on a single station, an issue that will be decided primarily by the weight each aircraft can carry.
Credit: BAE Systems