Warplanes: Iraqi Laser Scouts


October 30, 2018: The Iraqi Army has ordered five more Bell 407 GX armed helicopters for $16.6 million each (including accessories and some spares). These are needed to replace the seven lost since 2014 to accidents and combat while fighting ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). The Bell 407s proved to be very useful against ISIL and were constantly in action. This was largely because of these helicopters being able to use laser-guided missiles. At the end of 2016, Iraqi Bell 407 scout helicopters began using laser-guided missiles on a large scale. This was a big deal because until then most of the Iraqi helicopters were using machine-guns, unguided rockets and unguided bombs. By the end of 2012, Iraq received 30 Bell 407 scout helicopters from the United States and they had proved useful doing reconnaissance and moving key people around.

The Bell 407 is a 2.8 ton commercial helicopter that has been militarized in the U.S. as the ARH-70. That model never entered service. After that, the militarized version was the Bell 407 GX, which was equipped with a lot of sensors, a fire control system, a glass cockpit and the ability to carry nearly a ton of weapons. Usually, that consisted of a rocket pod and a 12.7mm (or 7.62mm) machine-gun. The police or border patrol version carried no weapons but instead had searchlights, infrared (heat) sensors and a loudspeaker system. The military and police versions usually carried two pilots (one of them acting as a weapons/sensors operator). Without the weapons, the military version could still carry four passengers in the back. Bell 407s had a top speed of 260 kilometers an hour (a cruising speed of 210 kilometers an hour), a max altitude of 6,000 meters (20,000 feet). Average endurance per sortie was 2-3 hours (depending on weight carried and high-speed activity).

Iraq originally ordered three 407s equipped as gunships (machine-guns and Hellfire missiles and sensors), three for use as trainers and 24 for scouting (but could be armed with machine-guns and Hellfire missiles). The problem was that the Bell 407 could only carry two Hellfires on most missions. This was similar to the first Iraqi warplane equipped with Hellfires, the four-ton Cessna AC-208B Combat Caravan aircraft could carry a ton internally but was not really able to carry more than two Hellfires. The solution turned out to be the smaller, lighter 70mm laser-guided missiles. Seven of these in an M260 launcher weighed as much as two Hellfires.

The 70mm laser guided rockets are basically World War II era 13.6 kg (30 pound) 70mm (2.75 inch) unguided rockets with the addition of a laser seeker and flight controls. Thus equipped the 70mm guided missiles had a 2.7 kg (six pound) warhead, and a range of about six kilometers. Laser designators on a helicopter, aircraft, or with troops on the ground, are pointed at the target and the laser seeker in the front of the 70mm missile homes in on the reflected laser light. The guided 70mm rocket is used against targets that don't require a larger (49 kg/108 pound) and more expensive Hellfire missile but still needs some targeting precision. In tests, the APKWS (Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System) hit within a meter (a few feet) of the aiming point, about what other laser-guided are capable of. The 70mm missile makes an excellent weapon for light helicopters and larger UAVs, especially since you can carry more of them. The launcher for carrying these missiles on fixed-wing aircraft is designed to replace the one for Hellfire but can carry four missiles instead of one. Another option is the M260 launcher wired to work with guided missiles rather than unguided rockets (usually fired all at once rather than one at a time when using a laser designator).

Iraqi combat aviation specialists noted the unique capabilities of the APKWS early on and in 2014 got permission to order the smaller 70mm laser-guided missiles and equip the Bell 407s as quickly as possible. Until the lightweight 70mm laser-guided missiles and the laser targeting systems for the small helicopters arrived and were installed the Bell 407s had not been very effective in combat. The switch to the 70mm missiles made a big difference because seven smaller missiles could be carried in place of one or two Hellfires or no guided missiles at all. Laser guided missiles were much more effective in fighting ISIL whose tactics involved fighting in urban areas and in the midst of civilians. Iraqi had already been using the larger and more expensive Hellfire missile but the new 70mm laser-guided missiles were ideal for small helicopters like the Bell 407 and because of the smaller warhead were less likely to cause casualties among nearby civilians.

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 ten kilometers.




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