Air Weapons: It Works Great But Nobody Wants It


March 26, 2014: The U.S. Army recently completed live fire tests of the DAGR 70mm guided missile. Sixteen DAGRs were successfully launched and hit targets. This was done using three types of helicopters (AH-64D Apache, AH-6 Little Bird, and OH-58) plus a launcher mounted in a truck. All missiles hit targets that were from 1.5-5.1 kilometers away. Laser guidance was used, so each missile hit within a meter of where it was aimed. The manufacturer said that they have customers for DAGR but would not identify them.

Over the last two decades several firms have figured out how to turn 70mm (2.75 inch) unguided rockets into laser guided missiles. Most, like DAGR, 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 (United Arab Emirates), 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.

Lockheed-Martin developed DAGR with their own money. Like Talon, DAGR is compatible with existing laser designators and aircraft equipped to use Hellfire missiles. The big advantage of all these 70mm missiles is that each is one fourth the weight of a Hellfire, and one about a third the cost. That means AH-64s burn less fuel carrying them, and the 70mm missile is as effective as a Hellfire in destroying most of the small targets Hellfire is used against. But there are already many similar weapons available for this and few nations want to add what they consider a redundant weapon system.

Despite the lack of demand, the 70mm missiles eventually found some customers. Back in 2010 the U.S. Marine Corps purchased fifty AKWS II (Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System) kits for testing. That was followed by an order for kits to convert some of the 100,000 marine 70mm unguided rockets to laser guided ones. In 2013 the marines made their third purchase, for over 20,000 newly manufactured AKWS 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 over a hundred AKWS II in Afghanistan and none of them missed.

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 guided versions of the 70mm air-to-surface and surface-to-surface versions. Developing a guided 70mm rocket took longer than expected 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 70mm laser guided missiles regularly 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 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 DAGR 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.

The UAE and its American partner Raytheon are again trying to market the 70mm laser guided missile they developed in 2009 as a weapons system for aircraft. The new version is for small ships. This new version uses the existing LAU-68 launcher for 70mm rockets, but linked to a fire control system that can put a laser on the ship or boat that the 70mm missiles can find and hit. Fired from the surface these 70mm missiles have a range of five kilometers. The LAU-68 filled with seven 70mm missiles weighs about 227 kg (500 pounds) and is small and light enough to be mounted on small ships. The problem is there are already many models of missiles and autocannon already available for this sort of thing. This has been the problem with all version of these 70mm missiles.

Apparently the 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. Several other smaller missiles have been developed, and one of them, the Griffin, has been used over Pakistan and Afghanistan on American UAV as well as fixed wing gunships (like the AC-130). The smaller Griffin is also 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 or four of them in place of one Hellfire and often using the same fire control equipment that operates with Hellfire.





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