The U.S. Navy has begun testing "smart" rocket launchers aboard MH-60R Seahawk helicopters, officials said.
The San Diego-based Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 15 is evaluating 22 of the new digital rocket launchers, which were delivered last month as part of a two-year rapid deployment program, according to Capt. Al Mousseau, who manages the service's Direct and Time Sensitive Program Office.
"There's a lot of opportunity here," Mousseau said on Wednesday during a presentation at the Navy League's Sea-Air-Space conference in National Harbor, Md. The service plans to integrate another 30 systems onto MH-60S choppers over the next year, he said.
Each of the launchers is capable of firing 19 Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System rockets made by BAE Systems Plc, Mousseau said. That's almost triple the capacity of current seven-tube launchers found on AH-1 Cobras and UH-1 Hueys, he said.
Engineers, technicians and contractors at Indian Head, Md., outfitted existing launchers with new digital electronics hardware that allows pilots to fire the "smart" rockets from specific tubes, Mousseau said. The eventual goal is for the launchers to be able to carry a mixed load of guided and unguided weapons, he said.
The Navy began the rapid deployment program in 2012, Mousseau said. The acquisition effort, which began with the Army, is estimated to cost less than $100 million and overcame numerous developmental challenges, such as figuring out how to make the electronics withstand the type of vibrations found on ships and aircraft, he said.
The APKWS converts a 2.75-inch Hydra rocket into a "smart" munition by adding a semi-active laser guidance and control mid-section. It's a low-cost option for precision strike, costing less than $30,000 apiece -- roughly a third of the price tag of an AGM-114 Hellfire missile made by Lockheed Martin Corp. While not as powerful as the Hellfire, the APKWS is effective at soft, light targets such as wheeled vehicles and small boats.
In addition to the Navy and Marine Corps rotorcraft, BAE has also tested the weapon on the Army's AH-64 Apache attack helicopter and OH-58 Kiowa scout chopper, among other aviation platforms, according to David Harrold, director of precision guidance solutions and electronic systems at the company.
The company expects to receive another Navy contract for the system later this year, Harrold said. It also expects to announce its first foreign military sale of the system in coming months, he said.